Pitt Poetry Series, $12.95 paperback
Maggie Anderson’s new collection, Windfall, brings together a selection of polished fruits from her three previous books with a group of less ripened poems of more recent harvest. The danger in any volume of “new and selected poems” is that weak poems stand out.
In her most successful poems, Anderson writes with a clarity and force of purpose that is both powerful and self-assured. Often, she tries to make sense of the tension that arises in love, loss, and circumstance. In her poem, “Daphne,” Anderson reckons with unrequited love,
Daphne studies her lover’s face.
Eyes, nose, a few wrinkles.
Here’s a spot like a seashell.
“You need something I can’t give you,”
the lover says smiling.
Lacking, Daphne shudders. What could it be?
What could it be?
She swoons at her lover, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Elsewhere, as in “Empirical,” she realizes that much in the world is beyond her control and that it’s sometimes better just to let go:
I lie down to wait for the river.
What I love about sorrow is its capacity
for metaphor, how sadness makes things
resemble each other. To the river, my body
is just a stone
She gives in to the river and the river takes her, but while she lies there staring at “clouds the way I saw them as a child,” her vision is not clouded, never obscures what she sees around her.
What Anderson describes most clearly are the mining and mill towns of her own life in West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and the changes affecting the people in those communities. This, from “Closed Mill:”
Wall by wall,
they are tearing this structure down.
Probably we are not going to say
too much about it, having as we do
this beautiful reserve, like roses.
Lives and places in transition are a recurring concern. The poet is an unflinching witness with a sensitive and empathetic worldview. In many ways, she seems to be saying, these lives could be hers.
In the new poems, however, Anderson strays too far from her world view. Perhaps only the “Black Dog” poems come close to achieving her more characteristic knife-edge vision. And if the last poem in the collection, “These Greens,” with its mixture of prose and poetry, hints at an intriguing new direction for the poet, one wishes she had developed its devices further.
Her new poems seem unfinished, half-thoughts on their way to becoming poems, which sounds cruel, but pronouncements such as “Didn’t say it right, said it dumb,/or some would say sweet, with an accent,/but wrong nonetheless” belie a self-consciousness and hurried, lack of craft that is discomfiting in such an accomplished poet. Much like the lights in that closed mill, the power seems to have gone out in her most recent work.
Nowhere among the new poems can one find such haunting images as:
they sealed up
forty miners in a fire. The men who had come
to help tried and tried to get down to them,
but it was a big fire and there was danger,
so they had to turn around
and shovel them back in. All night long
they stood outside with useless picks and axes
in their hands, just staring at the drift mouth.
One of the values of a “selected poems” is that older work is resurrected and published again, perhaps long after it is out of print. Despite the flawed new poems, Windfall contains the best of Maggie Anderson’s work thus far. We follow her in these poems, as we follow the narrator in her poem “Caving”: “We roll in the grass like dogs to get the muck off,/eat the flowers, fondle the tree bark,/shed dank bandages,/kneel in the weeds,/breathe.”–Scott Edward Anderson