EILEEN TABIOS Engages
Dear Almost by Matthew Thorburn
(Louisiana University Press, Baton Rouge, 2016)
The concept is bludgeoning: Dear Almost is a book-length poem written by Matthew Thorburn to reflect a year-long journey of grieving and meditating over an unborn child. It’s painful for me to even summarize the book, but the author’s and publisher’s book description works well for this purpose:
Dear Almost is a book-length poem addressed to an unborn child lost in miscarriage. Beginning with the hope and promise of springtime, the poet traces the course of a year with sections set in each of the four seasons. Part book of days, part meditative prayer, part travelogue, the poem details a would-be father’s wanderings through the figurative landscapes of memory and imagination as well as the literal landscapes of the Bronx, Shanghai, suburban New Jersey, and the Japanese island of Miyajima.
As the speaker navigates his days, he attempts to show his unborn daughter “what life is like / here where you ought to be / with us, but aren’t.” His experiences recall other deaths and uncover the different ways we remember and forget. Grief forces him to consider a question he never imagined asking: how do you mourn for someone you loved but never truly knew, never met or saw? In candid, meditative verse, Dear Almost seeks to resolve this painful question, honoring the memory of a child who both was and wasn’t there.
The anguished roots of the poem highlight the achievements of Dear Almost for presenting a poem which narratively travels far and wide and yet makes all elements relate to the poet’s unborn daughter—and Thorburn does so in controlled and luminous words:
So give me a sign if
you’re out there, if you’re
the light swaying, swinging
between trees, that light
growing faint, drifting deeper
into the shadowy woods,
if you’re that pale glow
between the elms and alders.
What star do you steer by?
Where are you going?
Tell me you can hear this
if that’s you who pauses
beside a ragged oak,
head cocked to one side
like a doe, light bouncing back
from your dark eyes
if that’s you moving under
starlight and moonlight,
waiting for a gauze of cloud
to dim the world
Here’s another excerpt:
Lily says when
I come home, “and un-
satisfying, isn’t it?
To hurt like this for someone
we never met?” She turns
off the water, wipes her hands
with the yellow towel.
“But here we are, hurting for
someone we never met.”
I think what we’ve lost
is imagination—the soft glimmer
of possibility, that hum
in the belly (this part I don’t say
out loud), the lightness
I remember feeling each day
during that little while
when sarcasm and irony
and even the last bit of bitterness
had all fallen away
so that it felt like gravity
had been dialed down just for us.
The poem/book also divides itself into sections relating to the four seasons, and the poet’s deftness can be seen in how each section's emotional tenor relates to its corresponding season. As examples, below are the (page-)openings to the “The Light That Lasts All Summer” and “Three Deer Beneath the Autumn Moon.” (Click on images to enlarge.)
I am sharing excerpts because I notice the superb—and lovely—quality of the writing yet don’t want to look at the words as a “reviewer.” What I can share is that Dear Almost compelled me to respond with my own poem--perhaps the highest compliment a reader-writer can bestow upon what is read. Here it is below—I wrote it “for Matthew Thorburn for writing Dear Almost”—a poem that began as it continued from my reading of his book’s last page:
From The Ashbery Riff-Offs
—where each poem begins with 1 or 1-2 lines from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery
Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: No(t) Words
That is the tune but there are no words
like the fall of snow when it is gentle
thus, slow—a pace that also eases
the velocity of the world so that your mind
can linger over the last kiss you care
-fully placed on your Dad’s cheek as
he laid, eyes closed, on his deathbed
and on your baby’s brow before you
drew back to watch her soul join your
waiting father’s. He is your Dad, thus
knows to whisper as a song from
a bird suddenly alit by the open window
“Your child will not be alone, and we
will wait for you to join us.” That is
the tune that clenched your heart, then
released it to mirror the span of the sky
Yes, my poem includes a reference to “Dad,” as Dear Almost also moved me to remember loved ones who've passed, such as my father. That result speaks to the power of Thorburn’s poem, and creates the paradoxical result of saddening me as well as making me grateful for the grief.
My condolences to Matthew Thorburn and his family. I wish you had not had to write this book. But as the book is written, I recommend it.
Eileen Tabios is the editor of Galatea Resurrects. Her 2017 poetry releases include two books, two booklets and six poetry chaps. The latter includes a new fundraising chap, MARAWI, co-authored with Albert Alejo. Forthcoming later this fall is a new poetry collection, MANHATTAN: An Archaeology (Paloma Press). She does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere for a recent review of her work: M. Earl Smith reviews Excavating the Filipino In Me for The FilAm Magazine! More info about her work at http://eileenrtabios.com
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