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The Poetry and Prose of Deborah Digges
by James Naiden
In one of her most trenchant poems, “Life’s Calling,” Deborah Digges begins with a strikingly exaggerated metaphor describing what she was meant to do with her life, as she saw it: “My life’s calling: setting fires.” This is the first line only. At the end of the poem, the final line and a half read: “This is what / you are. This is what you’ve come to.” In light of the recent publication of her posthumous collection, The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart (Random House, 2010), it is worth reflecting on what took place between these beginning and ending lines—not in only this delicately rendered poem, but in Digges’s overall work as a writer before she took her own life at age fifty-nine on April 10, 2009, in Amherst, Massachusetts.
When Digges plunged from a stadium ledge, she had not been physically ill, but certainly was wrought in her emotions. Her death was unexpected. For readers who did not know her personally or have an opportunity to attend one of her readings, this will be a poignant update. Her poems and prose are still with us, of course, and will remain so. If one searches Digges online, the video of a brief reading she gave at a literary gathering in Pasadena only a month before her death will reveal a vibrant, well-spoken writer who may not have realized how close she was to the edge. “Life’s Calling,” with its excessive motif, has a piercing truth, as does much of the writing contained in her five poetry collections and two memoirs.
Digges was born Deborah Leah Sugarbaker on February 6, 1950, and was raised in Jefferson City, Missouri, the sixth of ten children, their father an oncologist, their mother a nurse. Early in life she learned about practical matters as well as religion, the challenges and adjustments of living with others, and staking her own claim, as it were, about what she wanted to do for a career. It was more a road of happenstance than precocious determination.
On both sides of her family, she was the descendant of Dutch immigrants. Her parents chose the Southern Baptists in Missouri because it seemed the closest denomination they could find without their preference, the Dutch Reformed, in or near “Jeff City.” She and her siblings read and reread the Old and New Testaments. Thus, she came to know her way around the Bible and its many didactic texts. While the young future poet did not appear overwhelmingly affected by religious belief one way or the other, piety was a theme in her family. Her poetry and prose would be sprinkled with references from the scriptures, as would the work of other poets such as Robert Lowell, Eugene J. McCarthy, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, W. D. Snodgrass, and Robert Bly. Her mother taught religion once a week at a nearby women’s prison. Young Deborah often accompanied her mother, who was trying to bring some light into the lives of these imprisoned women. She and her siblings also helped their father in his medical practice, assisting in his surgeries, learning about physical illness, the need for and effects of medicine on the body, and how or if one might recover or die from cancer, for example. She relates in Fugitive Spring, her first memoir, how she fainted more than once while attempting to assist her father in his medical work. She had difficulties and exasperations not uncommon to the young while growing up but appeared not to have been scarred or traumatized by any one experience. In both Fugitive Spring and The Stardust Lounge, her second memoir, and throughout her five collections of verse, resentment and bitterness do not play a noticeable role. If these emotions were a factor at all, she downplays them.
In fact, Deborah Sugarbaker felt strong attachments to her family members, but also knew that her own road in life would not follow those of her parents or her older siblings, as indeed it did not. Like her relatives, however, she also became a parent and had particular difficulties in raising the second of her two sons. She lost two marriages through divorce and a third by the death of her spouse, which affected her greatly. Nowhere in her seven books does she criticize her first or second husbands, reflecting what Gabriel Garcia Marquez once told Madeleine Albright after he learned she was writing her memoir: that such a book was not the place for score-settling or revenge, but was instead an opportunity to gain perspective about oneself and, if necessary, the perceived mistakes of others.
Digges’s debut, Vesper Sparrows, was published in 1986, two years after she finished her M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers Workshop, by Atheneum, then still a significant publishing outlet for poetry. In an early poem from that collection, “The New World,” she mentions a friend who has cancer and is “driving West to live again,” presumably with the hope of remission but by no means certain. It is a testament to seeing loss, possibly with no hope otherwise. As a physician’s daughter, Digges is fully aware of mortality and how one should confront it:
We should let go of each other more easily,
say good-bye without fear, the heart’s birthmark,
The air is alive with our failure.
The poet’s vivid memories from her father’s medical practice come alive, as if what he had done for a living influenced the byways in her own later life, as in “Painting by Number”:
There was the farmer
who would not come to the front door,
his face already jaundiced, luminous,
as if death were light inside him.
He’d bring a picture as payment
saying it was his hobby now that he was
dying to paint what he’d never seen.
The book’s title poem is about fallen birds in New York City outside a mental hospital, the numbing fate of winged creatures not meant by nature to exist in such unforgiving surroundings; here are middle couplets—unrhymed, of course:
I have identified so many times that sudden
earnest spasm of the throat in children,
or in the jaundiced faces of the dying,
the lower eye-lids straining upward.
Fear needs its metaphors.
I’ve read small helplessnesses make us material.
Even the sparrows feel it,
nesting this evening in traffic lights.
They must have remembered, long enough to mate,
woods they’ve never seen,
but woods inbred up the long light of instinct,
the streaked siennas of a forest floor
born now into the city,
the oak umbers, and the white tuft
of tail feathers like a milkweed meadow
in which their song, as Burroughs heard it,
could be distinguished . . .
At other times, Digges scours the past, such as when she assisted her father while he made his hospital rounds. If she learned anything in these early years, it was how strong yet fragile the human body is. “Laws of Falling Bodies” foreshadows morbidly what was to come later by her own choice. The opening and then middle lines portray the towering yet compassionate figure who was her father and her own sense of mortality as she witnessed the inevitable decimation of those kept alive, if only for a while:
My father taught me how strong the body is.
He’d take me with him
on the ward Sunday evenings in summer
where women lay wiped clean and waiting.
I remember how they looked at him, and me.
They wished I hadn’t come. He was handsome,
his dark gray hair full over his high
forehead. He asked them to hold up the blankets
while he looked into their wounds . . .
Digges had a remarkable prescience about her life—especially her preordained future—with poem titles such as this one, and in her tributes to both Sylvia Plath and Marina Tsvetayeva. Her further belief in memory as a proper source for materials is redeemed over and over again. Her upbringing in central Missouri during the 1950s and ’60s offers grounded perspective on the fruits of recall. “Coal-Stars,” a luminous sestina evoking her youth, gives the reader pause. If one looks back on one’s life or what is known of other lives, the lump of coal is not coal but a lodestar by which to chart the journey. “Coal-Stars” is illustrative for the mystery a young person finds in steps to adulthood—what is and why is there coal and how is it left by the train tracks? The answer of course is trains spill it while they lurch around corners, as Digges explains. Other questions emerge in her memory through this poetic form with its six repeating end words, stopped or not, or variations thereof, and the three-line coda in which these words are repeated once more. Here are the first strophe and the three end lines of “Coal-Stars”:
I used to find stars on my walks along the tracks
where the coal cars on the sharp turns had spilled
a little of their cargo. Nothing so black
came out of the earth I knew, earth by a river,
made of red clay and limestone, granite conceived
in the hillsides, its white dusting . . . .
We were conceived near the river, the split river,
The black of the coal-stars came of like the night in my hands,
I left them there, dust in the dust between the tracks.
Digges is a wanderer in her past, and in those of her many siblings—“Four brothers. Six sisters.”—and from this draws much material for poems. “Coal-Stars” evokes the tilting edge of loneliness, of desolation, that walking alone on a railroad track can inspire. Memories from long-ago scenes are also in the next poem, in this first collection:
This morning the light seems
smaller, like waking under the paper—
thin hood of a dream
or in an attic room.
In another November
my father woke me near dawn.
He said he wanted company before
his hospital rounds.
He’d blow into my hands, give me
a warm egg to hold after
beneath the blankets.
Then we stood by the stove while he
heated the milk, a new skin rising
to the surface,
He called it the milkman’s shirt
and dipped his fingers in.
What came away looked more like lace
from a wedding dress
or a woman’s bed-jacket,
the one she’d slip on
just before the doctor came, the first
to see her, mornings.
Toward the end, the final two strophes, the transposition of waking and the immediate insertion of memory weave into the poem’s closure—“just before the doctor came / the first to see her, mornings.” Of course, the doctor was her father who wanted company, not to see her as a patient. Nonetheless, “like lace / from a wedding dress // or a woman’s bed-jacket” provides memory and relevance to the present moment.
“The Man In The Circle” is replete with observations piling on top of each other. A pair of metaphors deserves comment. Of a schoolgirl who walks by daily, the poet observes closely with successive images prompting each other in turn:
She trails a finger along the war vet’s useless car.
Rusting, grill up over the curb,
it’s sneered for months.
The owner himself grows vague to us, and clearer
it seems, in his purpose.
He’s taken to wearing the feathers
of a great Indian warrior.
bare-chested on his porch this cold morning,
he sits cutting the sleeves off his jackets.
So let the wind pick up now
catching a little dust in its thermals.
Let him not be anyone’s father . . .
Discursive, yes, but as meaning injects itself and multiplies with elongated, conversely even permutations, hangovers as it were from the past resurrect themselves as pathos in the neighbor—Iowa City? Amherst? Jefferson City? Somewhere in California? Seattle? The poet doesn’t say, nor does it matter:
God, how American to hope
they’ll come to love their lives somehow, American
to say what is and isn’t possible.
If there were ever angels could we please resemble them
in their earnest confusion in the story
of the garden when the weeds grew up around them?
—especially my neighbor,
the one whose son’s afraid to cry . . .
At the poem’s conclusion, one sees the brutal effects of displaced humanity, discards from the “me” culture pervading the “civilized West”:
Now a doll found naked in a ditch,
eyes rusted open, is blasphemy.
Vesper Sparrows and Digges’s four succeeding collections have more than enough poems to make any essay on her work run on for pages, but since my purpose here is to provide a general idea of her poetry, I will focus on only some of the more significant ones.
Digges’s poetry is marked by her capacious style, which becomes her status as a mortal trying to understand the life she was given. “Stephen’s Birds” is short, written while the poet lived briefly in Seattle—and illustrates in eleven taut lines both the better device of brevity, when she chose to use it, and her love for her second son, who, unlike her first boy, had a tumultuous adjustment from childhood to adolescence into adulthood. Beyond this, “The Alphabet of the Air” is a tribute to her first husband, Charles Digges, Sr., while they were still married. “Custody,” “Mimosa,” “Orangutan Means Orange Man,” and “The First Day of Summer” are all charters of her experience, etched memories of a life in images and metaphor. When she met her future second husband, the poet Stanley Plumly, and then married him, Digges knew that small wonders might be enlarged because of their mutual calling. So could love be as intensely lived because of this? In the opening stanzas of “Boxelder Rocker,” Digges pays tribute to her poet husband’s observance of marital harmony:
He was still small enough
to rock and sing to in front of the fires
you made. I’m thinking
how carefully you’d carry
another man’s son upstairs
to his bed. See, the wood has darkened
in your absence
as if to remember these things.
In her second memoir, The Stardust Lounge, Digges further remembers Stanley Plumly’s approach to their ill-fated marriage, a sympathetic portrait, and obliquely one of her first spouse as well. Indeed, both these men emerge as worthy partners. She never says why or how her first marriage broke apart (nor does it matter to us here), but in the marriage to Plumly, the physical absence, the ordeal of commuting on weekends, and her younger son’s recalcitrance and antisocial behavior put great strain on the relationship. At one point, she recounts, Plumly told her one morning: “I can’t do this any more.” Nonetheless, her poems are free of self-righteous cant and retribution. She recounts her life as she believes an adult should and moves quickly from subject to image embracing metaphor’s allusive byways, although not weaving an overall narrative context. In so doing, she leaves much to the reader’s speculation. Her two prose memoirs fill in some gaps, but the reader is still left with the poems as small islands in the much wider lake of her life. It is as if the act of writing a poem embraces what Carl Rakosi once said it is of necessity: momentary inspiration only, stirring quickly, and over in a short time.
In her five books of poetry published through 2010, Digges produces an occasional “long” poem—such as “A Greeting” in Late In The Millenium and “Rock, Scissors, Paper” in Rough Music. Usually, though, her poems are no more than two pages, compact except where her allusions tumble over themselves in the spillage of language as she remembers and then ties them together. One gets the impression that revision was one of her most precious tools. A good night’s sleep, or sometimes putting a new poem away for a few days, can provide wonders when the time comes to craft it into a publishable manuscript.
“Descent of Man” is descriptive of Digges’s wide reading (“I try to imagine Lenin’s anger.”) with more memories of her father, this time shooting at pesky mated birds on their apple orchard property, or “the Rotcy boys” on the college campus of her youth during a time of needless war. It is not unusual for an allusive mind such as Digges had to have encapsulated a number of associations into a single poem. This can be seen in “Exile,” a deftly crafted sestina whose approach borrows appreciatively from the paintings of Caravaggio.
We know how Digges died, but no one knows why beyond speculation. It was noted after her death that suicide was on her mind, especially in Trapeze (Knopf, 2005), the last book published in her lifetime. While this is arguable and ultimately beside the point, her work suggests many things, vulnerability not the least among them. As one anonymous reader remarked eight months after her death: “I wish there had been some sort of intervention with and for Deborah after she published her last book, Trapeze. That book screamed ‘I want to die.’”1 In Vesper Sparrows, two decades earlier, the hints were there as well. “For Sylvia Plath,” written in London, offers recognition if not outright obeisance to suicide within the Anglo-American poetic canon. Plath killed herself at thirty after being deserted by her poet husband who then took up with another woman, leaving her with two very small children. It might be argued that in this poem the seeds of self-destruction for Digges were already there, and the suicide was not a sudden impulse years later.2 “For Sylvia Plath” depicts the obvious, although not so apparent when it first appeared, urge toward self-destruction. I suggest a close reading of “For Sylvia Plath”—if an early hint exists at all in Digges’s oeuvre, this poem is clearly it. Certainly not everyone who admires Plath’s poetry and empathizes all these years later with her plight after Ted Hughes deserted her will embrace self-destruction when depression extends its grisly claws, but the suggestion in retrospect for Digges is as strong as any.
FOR SYLVIA PLATH
She gave birth here,
which is to own the land
like these cliff trees, so black and hard
and efficient, closed
to anything but fire.
She had two children, worked
between feedings, and kept two gardens,
one simply for flowers.
They must still root somewhere
on these hillsides the way seeds can be carried for years
by the thermals on the muddied
wings of insects, in the wool blown
free of the thickets,
in the hooves of cattle,
in the feces of migrating birds.
Now Devon greens in April,
even the chimneys, the reddish-blue clay
and stone, the timber
of the houses, while over the grass the clouds
outrun their shadows to the sea,
as if the earth turns too quickly, let go
from the hand of the air,
as if the sod must feel its way
closer to the rock
against such wind that blinds
enough to see these pastures given, hedge
by higher hedge, to sunlight.
Certainly no artist is immune from emotions. Digges’s poems and prose abound with these, as in the final short lines of a poem presumably for her second husband, “For S.”:
If anything can teach us not to be afraid,
it is the light which owns nothing, which holds
the snow-stopped sycamores against itself, still
and brilliant and without shadow as it opens
these rooms filled for months with your absence,
Love, I can almost imagine summer,
how the green world begins.
This poem was written one February while they were commuting back and forth from Massachusetts to Maryland, where Digges and Plumly had teaching jobs, respectively. Another poem, “We’re Making Stars,” expresses this as well, the lines even more restrained, the emotion self-evident.
The final poem in Vesper Sparrows is “Stealing Lilacs in the Cemetery.” Immediately, one thinks of Sigrid Bergie’s lustrous poem, “Lilacs In The House”—so iconic, translucent. Bergie writes of joy and life, but for Digges this beautiful flower is bittersweet, as if she had made her decision long before April 2009. Addressed to her second son, here are the final poignant lines, etched jaggedly on the page:
I saw you
watch me at a distance—I
might remember me this
toward you over
the perfect squares of sod covering
the new graves like
doors in the earth,
full of flowers.”
Whether for one’s progeny, another family member, a lover, or prospective lover, the tribute poem is good. In this extended context, one is also reminded of Judith Wright’s images of how sweet and breathtaking one’s life can be when in love, and of many of Diane Wakoski’s poems when she is not describing miscues and anger.
Digges’s first book has not been without skeptics unconvinced by her rush to poetic allusiveness. In reviewing Vesper Sparrows, Jorie Graham challenges the notion that “life seems to offer itself up to poetry at every turn.” In other words, “in the midst of so much effortless music, one finds oneself asking that trees be trees first, that they really be seen before they are used.” Graham, while not wanting to be harsh, asks reasonably: “Was it Yeats who first drew the distinction between work of will and work of imagination?” She goes on to suggest that Digges “is at her strongest where her original and passionate intuition is used to record her emotions rather than generalizing them into vagueness.” This is something for any writer to keep in mind. “It’s as if the world so sought after by this poet ends up being overridden by her hurry to convert it into poetry at every turn,” Graham observes.3 The “success” of a poem or any piece of writing can be measured by several yardsticks, not the least important of which is believability. Abstruseness, or rampant poeticizing in this case, is hard for many poets to pull off all the time. Living in a cloistered environment, Gerard Manley Hopkins succeeded at this in late nineteenth-century England. So did Rainer Maria Rilke, living in mainland Europe, despite the upheaval of World War I, as did the American-born T. S. Eliot. Wallace Stevens, who lived until 1955 in the eastern United States, wrote poems embracing or at least suggesting a beauty and harmony more illusory than real. He seemed to win praise from most critics during a long career. However, Digges—as Jorie Graham perceptively remarks—may well demonstrate this weakness as a poet, at least in this first book. In sum, Vesper Sparrows is vividly emotive and Digges’s subsequent collections are no less anxious in tone.
Three years later, in 1989, Late In The Millenium appeared and generated much favorable response. The book is dedicated to Digges’s sister Eva, who preceded her in eloping when they were young. The volume’s epigram is an unattributed quote from Martin Heidegger: to build is to dwell.4 After her first marriage ended, Digges lived briefly in the Pacific Northwest. “Circadian Rhythms” recalls this experience, whether immediately or later is unclear. She had a lover with whom a rendezvous in that area is portrayed. The relationship, the poet implies, was temporary but still important at the time, as in these middle tercets:
we’d come to each still lost,
But in the months of our first loving,
we believed we’d been made whole,
at least a small wing’s
width of light in some bird’s dreaming itself
back across the continent,
at least a part of the infinitesimal turning
that sends a hundred species skyward . . .
It is as if the poet seeks fulfillment where she can—not in total abandon, but with recognition of tentative, short-lived commitment. Some joy, however fleeting, is better than a totally barren life. The final tercets come full circle:
I’ll miss you,
and miss your hands on me,
while all the dead nests this autumn unravel
in the trees.
Here the sky is a rare blue, a deep, endearing chaos.
It could be spring beyond our understanding.
One must choose the most illustrative. Wild fires in southern California or in her native Missouri render symbolic imagery. The first eight lines of “First Fire of the Season” demonstrate not lugubriousness but awareness—the allusion suggested by a gathering of butterflies in Vladimir Nabokov’s mind are not dissimilar to a falling star or a spark from a fire for Digges—someone was dying or had died, or indeed there was a series of deaths:
Blessed is the word igniting now
under the green spitting wood alive with insects.
Blessed the names, dissembled, falling
blessed their miraculous erasures.
How quickly a nest would burn this evening, the shell—
embedded down, the underweavings,
How quickly become a fist of fire opening
mid-air, plummeting . . . .
Despite the horrific imagery in her arsenal, Digges demonstrates bemused perspectives, such as her mother becoming a Rockette briefly before marriage (“The Rockettes”); a rueful looking back (“The Bitter Withy”); a romp of over five pages about early memories in central Missouri, her family apple orchard where they lived and her father practiced medicine, encounters with unfortunates as a result of the absurd war in southeast Asia (“A Greeting”); or both the serious and the near-ironic amplitudes of memory (“The Hokey-Pokey,” dedicated “for Charlie,” presumably her older son, not his father). This poem runs near helter-skelter in successive metaphors with implied elisions of recall—repairing an old dollhouse with Charlie, the song heard “from the retirement / home’s basement windows,” and the mentally compromised but harmless as well as the elderly residents themselves gathered into the end-box of their lives: “Now they’re moving in rhythm to the center / of the circle, their arms raised in / a bower through which one and then / another and then another passes, / passes, a little shyly, like a bride.”
Digges is specific and convincingly allusive here, as if the onrush of impressions leaves no choice but to portray them. In “Hall of Souls,” a skillfully woven but verbose sestina, the poet mentions her “own fear of closets” in an address to a husband after reading old letters. Here is a last image of domestic hearth:
without clothes or closets,
our own letters put away, and you, come home at last, for good,
a little tired, whisking me up in your arms like you used to.
Digges readily employs sexual images and/or graphic references to bodily functions (not unlike at least two of her contemporaries, Robert Hass and Allen Ginsberg) and impinges on what many readers might not want to know:
The way love itself unravels like a toy—
sized double helix spiral
you could lay flat against the page
and take a river and draw in the staff
and score the DNA, surely
the genes have seasons.
The brown flecks in my mother’s eyes
became my own, my son’s, through adolescence.
The body knows, at most, an octave
of desire that meets the air sometimes
for nothing. Just thinking of your hands
I can go wet, or dreaming, come
in my sleep, and wake to a day
in which all men are liars, wearing clothes.
Other poems in this second collection notable for Digges’s imaginative vigor are “Media Years,” “The Sea With Doors,” about death and the dying, and “House,” concerning the remnants of an abandoned house in which “the original inhabitants still ghosted the interior.”
The last lines of the volume’s final poem, entitled ”Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species,” inspired by traveling in Italy and observing workmen maintain a sculpture by Bernini, explain the book’s title:
A white dust shadows their bodies,
ghostly tourists, pedestrians,
as though, late in the millennium,
some mortal ceiling
had just been torn a—
way and we can’t help but rise
now and rise instead
of fall in the full
sunlight still clinging to the scaffolding.
By 1995 and the appearance of Rough Music, her third collection, Digges was divorced from Plumly and had published her first memoir, Fugitive Spring, to very good reviews. She then became romantically involved with Frank Loew, the president of a small college and a veterinary professor who had written a fan letter to her after seeing one of her books reviewed in a newspaper.
It has been remarked that Digges and Plath shared “the bond” of self-destruction, that one took after the other.5 As I have noted, Digges was strongly affected by what she knew of Plath and her circumstances as well as of Tsvetayeva, the Russian poet. In the case of Plath, her compatriot, they were of different generations and came from very different places, yet the examples of other writers committing suicide certainly must have had some affect on her decision. In other areas, both Plath and Digges had an intense interest in the animal world as well as insects and plants. As noted, Digges on occasion uses both scatological and bodily references in her poetry. Plath always avoided the explicitly vulgar. Still, in Digges’s work, the detail and wordiness in “Broom” can startle, as it does at the end of this three-page poem:
I thought I could grow old here,
safe among the ghosts, each welcomed,
yes, welcomed back for once, into this house, these rooms
in which I have got down on hands and knees and swept my hair
across my two sons’ broad tan backs,
and swept my hair across you, swinging my head,
lost in the motion,
lost swaying up and down the whole length of your body,
my hair tangling in your hair,
our hair matted with sweat and my own cum, semen,
lost swaying, smelling you,
smelling you humming,
gone in the motion, back and forth, sweeping.
One critic remarked that Digges’s “smoothly ordered lyrics are set among more spiky and scraping songs, ones that name ‘the stand-ins, lovers, the lies like animal shadows.’”6 David Gewanter quotes from both Digges’s long and short poems in Rough Music. As he and others have noted, there is a rough-hewn element Digges copes with here, in both human and non-human worlds. “Like a lost Adam, (she) names the heart of an extinguished world, sounding out with hard measures the many presences of her life: an absent-lover-turned-tyrant, boys losing their childish ways, a father suffering his last labor and animals turned into hand shadows.”7 In this sense, Gewanter almost echoes Jorie Graham’s comments on Vesper Sparrows a decade earlier—that Digges likes to make a person or an object “hurt into poetry,” as in the title poem of her third collection.8 These lines are representative:
I mention this since this is what my dreams,
are lately, rough music,
as if all the boys to women I have been, the muses, ghost—
girls and the shadows of the ancestors
circled my bed in their cheap accoutrements
and banged my silver spoons on iron skillets, moor
rock on moor rock, thrust yardsticks into the fans.
Though I wake and dress and try
to go about my day,
room to room to room they follow me.
Digges has a long poem here titled “Rock, Scissors, Paper” that recounts an imaginary three-way conversation among Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. It is more “fun to read,” as Michael Tjepkes might say, than informative about the treatises of any of these men or their influences on the world, certainly the Western world by the start of Digges’s lifetime when they were gone. Their writings are left stolidly behind for successive generations to ponder and use, if possible. There are eight parts to this poem. As Gewanter remarks, this “is the book’s most experimental and ambitious poem” and “presents a different order of lyric challenges” principally because it is “a choral fugue strung with the words of Darwin, Marx, and Freud.” Gewanter quotes at length from “Rock, Scissors, Paper” and comments that the poem “recalls the great pastiche-epics of Pound and Williams, where the page becomes a sticky wall that voices cling to.”9 While this poem is, to my eye and ear, uneven and not among Digges’s more successful, it should be noted that she has taken on a great subject—cultural/societal voices from the not-so-distant past, not unlike the British playwright Tom Stoppard has in “The Edge of Utopia,” his long historical play about nineteenth-century European thinkers whose writings influenced later events such as the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty and the establishment of the Soviet Union, lasting eight decades. Digges’s poem has no such magisterial ambitions as Stoppard’s play, but it would have been fascinating to hear her thoughts about this longer poem now, since this collection appeared not long after the fall of European communism.
David Gewanter offers more praise than carping for Digges’s poetics. Like Graham, he quotes Yeats, who suggests that the most meaningful verse comes from “the quarrel with ourselves.” Indeed, in Gewanter’s view: “Rough Music, with its mix of hard humor, dramatic history, eros, lament, and elegy, weaves much more than a string of associations.” This third book of poems presents a new direction for Digges: a solid reach into history. Definitive answers are not offered, of course. But the questions are brought out again and examined. Like Stoppard or John Millington Synge in their respective plays written in different historical contexts and societies, Digges employs the poem to elicit meaning—perhaps an answer of sorts—in these voices still extant long after their owners are gone. So is “Rock, Scissors, Paper” a success? David Gewanter believes so, apparently. The poem becomes more meaningful upon rereading. The texture reveals itself slowly. But perhaps Anna Freud, the great man’s daughter, speaking through Digges’s poetic verve, has the stronger insight. Her father died in 1939, the same year Yeats passed away, before the Holocaust caught Anna’s aunts in its deathly grip:
those first cold mornings our father blew into our hands
to warm them and in the afternoons after our classes
we were mad to be outside we’d bury one another in the leaves
we did not think those who have gone before us
the kingdom’s progenitors not the only species
we just lay down and closed our eyes
This is a rhythmical voice for history’s victims. In this sense, Digges has given these figures from the past a relevance through her portrayals in “Rock, Scissors, Paper.” The poet has done her provocative work. That’s what a superlative artist should do.
Other poems worth reading in Rough Music are plentiful. “Five Smooth Stones,” “Blue Willow,” “London Zoo,” and “Akhmatova” are among those giving the book a greater dimension. The great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova was a contemporary of Tsvetayeva, Boris Pasternak, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. To make sure she did not cause trouble for the Soviet regime, Stalin had her son imprisoned for years. After Stalin’s death, as Digges says in her notes, Akhmatova’s son eventually was released; he was now middle-aged. They did not get along well after he came back, as Digges recounts. Then she closes her poem: “Still, they begin. // Too much is lost—twenty-one years! / In fact they’ll never come to like each other. / She cannot find the child’s face in the man’s.” This is as haunting a poem as Akhmatova’s life was. She died in old age, in 1966.
In 2001, The Stardust Lounge appeared—Digges’s affecting memoir of her second son’s troubles and their surmounting difficulties together, mother and son (along with others, of course). The book was well received, if the critical reviews tell the truth all these years later. It was the caring of animals, particularly an epileptic pet bulldog, and then the durable presence of Trevor, her son’s adopted African-American brother, that helped immeasurably in these tumultuous years of Stephen Digges getting through rebellion, all sorts of scrapes that tired his mother physically, even emotionally, but not her love, nor her determination to see him through to adulthood. At book’s end, we see Deborah Digges taking her son as a freshman to his college dormitory in New York City. As she finally leaves, he tells her: “Thanks for the wonderful childhood!” In his smile, the expression of a young man no longer a child, she realizes she has indeed succeeded, and so has he. Now—life goes on, of course.
Her third marriage was relatively brief because her veterinarian husband died of cancer in 2003. His dual profession as an educator/veterinarian meshed well with Digges’s own interest in and natural compassion for both children and life other than human. During this brief marriage and afterward, Digges was a volunteer at an animal shelter in the Amherst area and also travelled to East Africa on occasion where she worked with abandoned children at an orphanage near Mount Kenya.10 Someone might have impressed upon her that she could not save the world, but in all likelihood she would have ignored such an entreaty. While she wanted to help others, it was she who was in danger from her own dark impulses. Now of course one may ask the question: who knew? Such altruism for others, while not unknown among writers, is unusual among poets, many tending toward self-absorption and careerism. But not Deborah Digges. She was in her mid-fifties when her fourth collection, Trapeze, was published in 2005—her sixth book overall. By any standard, it is a striking volume. The title poem, only twelve lines in unrhymed couplets, has the air of death, of a pre-ordained cri du coeur before taking it on unnaturally as others had done. No one but she knows this.
If one reads her earlier poetry closely, the hints are as broad as she could make them without having
intervention occur. No one seems to have noticed:
See how the first dark takes the city in its arms
and carries it into what yesterday we called the future.
O, the dying are such acrobats.
Here you must take a boat from one day to the next,
or clutch the girders of the bridge, hand over hand.
But they are missing like a pendulum
between eternity and evening.
diving, recovering, balancing the air.
Who can tell at this hour seabirds from starlings,
wind from revolving doors or currents off the river.
Some are as children on swings pumping higher and higher.
Don’t call them back, don’t call them in for supper.
See, they leave scuff marks like jet trails in the sky.
“O, the dying are such acrobats” does not need explication. The meaning is clear—in retrospect, of course. Digges is in full stride as a poet, her powers undiminished, but her strong internal voice trumpets the virtues of death. Other poems in the book ring to the call of taut images extended, but others do not. For instance, “Becoming A Poet” has the physical appearance of a prose poem on the page but has no coherent train of thought, just one association feeding another. I find it puzzling and unconvincing at best. Can a sober, intelligent reader follow the train of thought? If not, then somebody is putting someone else on—and in this case an interesting title does not by itself make a poem or prose poem succeed. If a jumble of thoughts or observations is what follows, the reader should not be expected to feel guilty. Obfuscation is not a mask for profundity, or the other way around, either.
At the outset of Trapeze, “Life’s Calling” has an exaggerated motif, as if the poet is using an absurd metaphor to describe the risks she knows an artist must take in order to realize a vision. Digges uses this sparely wrought poem to explain her own credo, standing aside, as it were, looking at her career of writing and teaching, raising children, to say nothing of three marriages, only to find the man she loves in the end terminally ill and dying not much later. The middle lines of “Life’s Calling” attest to her own sense of irony:
my breath that rifles the flames,
the fire risen to such dreaming
sung once before the landlords’ attics,
Sung once the broken lyres,
seasoned and green.
Even the few things I might save,
My mother’s letters,
Locks of my children’s hair.
The poet’s awareness of irony, even abject cruelty, undoubtedly changes her perspective. She offers the not-so-whimsical motif of the poet as pyromaniac—that the life she chose wasn’t “safe,” but it was the only one that made sense in her twenties. Then she comes to realize her life’s trajectory, her interests, have evolved into something she had not seen when she eloped at nineteen, following the daredevil example of an older sister. So again, the final line and a half of this poem: “This is what / you are. What you’ve come to.”
Digges’s devotion to Frank Loew, her new husband, is uplifting in the almost off-handed way she discusses this unexpected relationship. After his funeral, she recalls the pain of losing him:
To the curator of the museum, to the exhibition of fathers,
to the next room from this closet of trousers
and trousers, full sail the walnut hangers of shirts,
O the great ghost ships of his shoes.
Through the racks and the riggings,
belt buckles and coins in coat pockets
and moths that fly up from the black woolen remnants,
his smell like a kiss blows through the hallways of cedar,
the shape of him locked in his burial clothes,
his voice tucked deep in his name,
his keys and the bells to his heart,
I am passing his light blue seer-suckered suit
with one grass-stained knee,
and a white shirt, clean boxers, clean socks, a handkerchief.
One remembers “the shape of him locked in his burial clothes”—this stark portrayal of the deceased, irretrievably gone, but loved just the same. From testimony of her students, Digges always displayed this perspicacious quality as a teacher, as well. “In class, she had an amazingly quick ear for poetry,” said Gabriel Wilson. “She would take out one word and all of a sudden your poem sounded so much better, and you would be just awed.”11
In another reference to suicide, not to press too fine a point, the poem about Tsvetayeva deserves a close look. This is a good example of the proverbial diamond in the rough, the brilliant sculpture not quite emerged from a block of stone, as if Michelangelo or Giacometti had taken a break from a work and then abandoned it, moving on to something else. “Two of the Lost Five Foolish Virgins” is such an effort. This is a portrayal of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva in her final ordeal, one that Digges could only speculate about. The speaker in Digges’s poem is the person who finds Tsvetayeva hanging by the neck in a miserable shack where she had been forced to live in late summer 1941, in southern Russia. There is much dross here. Tsvetayeva was the mother of three and over the course of a tumultuous life had many lovers. The allusion to virgins is bizarre, to say the least. In Digges’s poem, the speaker discovers the poet dead, as in these last poignant lines:
rather be the one to hold
Marina as the rope’s released,
as men suspend their women
in the dance and spin them
above the robbers’ fires, the one
who holds her, heaves her
as the rope is cut, the one—
her age—who lays her down
and holds her head and rubs
the bloat out of her face
and smoothes her months—
worn smock over her knees.
Takes off her shoes. The one
who readies her and disappears,
leaving the burial to others.”
This is a convincing narrative, but the poem’s title doesn’t fit. It is also true that one of Tsvetayeva’s three children, a son, was quite rebellious and troubled, so Digges may have empathized as she read her work and learned more about the Russian poet’s difficult life. At one point, Digges goes so far as to remark in a poem that she is now forty-eight, the same age as Tsvetayeva when she committed suicide. Such notations suggest but do not confirm suicidal intent at this point, but Digges would live another eleven years before acting upon it.
The critical reaction to Trapeze was quite favorable. Laudatory quotes from reviews by well-known American poets are on the back cover. A more detached perspective is from Joseph Campana two years later, on the Kenyon Review website. The nature of elegy, whether for her late husband or for other writers whose poems and lives she had studied, was compelling, as Campana suggests: “Great elegies are different. Trapped between mute howling and the rut of convention, elegies summon the wild force of life itself: the fate that lives fiercely on in the wake of another’s loss. Reading such elegy is more like chasing tornadoes to see how close you can get. It’s dangerous business, and few poems are as dangerous as those of Deborah Digges.”12 This is as insightful a comment about one of Digges’s primal motifs as any I’ve seen. Wisely, Campana does not make predictions from his perspective of September 2007, but her death nineteen months later may not have surprised him as much as it did others. The elegies from her readers and those who may have seen her read at least once or had known her would have been something she would have understood very well. Indeed, Campana had attended a poetry reading Digges gave at Kenyon College, as he relates in his post.
A few weeks after Digges’s death, a poem that would be the title piece of her posthumous collection appeared in the New Yorker, “The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart.” It is a wave goodbye, certainly, but also a portrayal of the “dangerous business” (in Campana’s lexicon) for us, her readers, to know the dark impulses that killed her—and others. An oddity, which I replicate here, is that the poem titles in this fifth collection are all in the lower case. So it is, then. In reading through the book, one is struck by the fervent—she might say “loyal”—grief after her third husband’s death, as if without him she saw no reason for living any longer. In the title poem, the first lines are certainly strong and fluent but suggest overwrought aridity. Despite the arresting metaphors, she has not come to terms with the fact of death, or so it seems:
The wind blows
through the doors of my heart.
It scatters my sheet music
that climbs like waves from the piano, free of the keys,
Now the notes stripped, black butterflies,
flattened against the screens.
The wind through my heart
blows all my candles out. . . .
As if this mordancy were not enough, the poet is unrelenting in death references, a constant theme throughout this collection, as if the obsession will not let her go. Here are the title poem’s final lines:
Wing after wing, through the rooms of the dead
the wind does not blow. Nor the basement, no wheezing,
no wind choking the cobwebs in our hair.
It is cool here, quiet, a quilt spread on soil.
But we will never lie down again.
That she deeply admired and loved Frank Loew is the salient message in every reference to him—and there are many here. He died six years before she made her fatal decision. In “the birthing,” she depicts her spouse stopping their car on a trip and spontaneously helping a calf give birth. His expertise as a veterinarian is worth reading about, both for the strong, arresting descriptions of an unbidden, compassionate act and the resolution. In another poem, which she can be seen and heard reading aloud at the Pasadena literary event on video a month before she died, Digges’s poem “haying” has some unforgettable lines in the middle suggesting a wish to die, if only because she sees no point without her mate. “ I’ll try on death to find you, gown made of grasses / harvest time, early, the loose hay drying in the snow.” Other poems not as macabre are “dancing with emerson” and “one night in portland” before one gets to “that’s why he died / late spring i think to save me.” Digges’s eloquent morbidity, however, is not confined only to obsessions about her departed husband, hence her being alone with the constant refrain of self-destruction, but also memories of her father’s work as a doctor operating on patients who had no hope of recovery. The scene described here is when she and her siblings are present at a medical procedure and their father tells them to go to the other side of the operating table. The final seven lines of “another angle” give a strong picture of the poet’s memories from long ago:
Even the scalpel in such light is beautiful
that for a moment takes on the brilliance of the room,
my father’s face, long dead, into the tissue
round the stone he is extracting,
and the scar that will heal like the meander of a river.
The organs, breathing, many colored, shine
from the other side of the table.
Not every poem in this book matches its title, a strange glitch we have seen earlier in Digges’s work. And as before, the reader will wonder what a poem such as “green” is really about. There are myriad images, like colored glass mixed up as in kaleidoscope, but in a poem only serve as distraction, not coherence, to say nothing of the imagery itself.
Another poem, “now we are nine,” laments the after-effects of her eldest sibling’s death in late middle age, perhaps brought on by the early death of his son. Digges is unrelenting in her anger at death, at its deprivation. Not surprisingly, she embraces it, too. The second half of the poem reflects on her eldest brother and other siblings when they were all young. Some illustrative lines: “We’d board the wagon, evenings. He pulled us home, / yes pulled us, his younger brothers, sisters, / and the weights of the bushel baskets full of apples.” However, the very next poem is “to love you” and is not about another human being but instead is about watching trained dolphins doing tricks. Just who the “you” is in the poem’s title is a mystery. One can only guess.
In some ways, Digges’s command of metaphor and allusive imagery is stronger than ever when she grieves. A poem with almost chaotic but pulsing energy is “the house that goes dancing.” These opening and then successive lines give an idea of this terrible vibrancy:
Not always but sometimes when I put on some music
the house it goes dancing down through the yard
to cha-cha the willows or up into town
to tango the churches.
The neighbors, appalled, they call the police . . .
And then these reiterated lines depicting grief, recalling her dead spouse’s presence, in many of these poems since 2003:
to wrap round her roof, she goes dancing.
love’s house she goes dancing her grief-stricken dance
for his unpacked suitcases, his detritus, his hair, his hairbrush,
his glasses, his letters, his toothbrush,
his closets of clothes where I crouch like a thief
when the house it goes dancing.
There is a persistence in this book that is a lesson in how not to deal with bereavement: the continual dwelling about it in poem after poem. I mention here other poems where the theme of her husband’s death and now absence, predominate: “string game,” “the coat,” “the last rising of some small tribe,” and “what woman”—and here the last lines are ominous as any warning could be:
A widow talks to weeds
whose feet I knelt before and wept last spring,
oh anything grown green,
and picked fistfuls of dandelions,
this side the veil the great betrayers,
and spent my purse on seeds,
too early sewn, too early planted, dead
by June. And then the feast!
Armfuls of light, the season first and wildly blossoming.
What was it for?
A cemetery lot mindless of absence,
as wrenched as it’s glorious.
The first and last lines of “write a book a year”—the final poem of this posthumous gathering—are as good as any to approach a tentative summing up. Indeed, no poet can be added up, or subtracted. Reputations rise and fall with the generations. One can admire, say, a poet’s work without liking other matters in the life. That after all is the business of a biographer, not of the critic trying to make sensible statements about a given oeuvre. Still, a cloudy day suggests rain, and that means taking precautions in inclement weather. Here are the opening lines of “write a book a year”:
Well the wild ride into the earth was thrilling,
really, scared as I was and torn and sore.
I say what other woman could have managed it?
The motif is unquestionably what she has planned for herself, told in as strong a language as possible without white-jacketed intervention. Only in aftermath does it become clear. And then the four ending lines:
I want the dark back, the bloody well of it,
my face before the fire,
or lie alone on the cold stone and find a way
to sleep awhile, wake clear and wander
It would be tempting to say this book is a long suicide note between pretty covers and binding. The emotions are raw, if eloquently stated, the juxtaposition of analogies and references masterfully drawn. This poet knows her craft, and in poem after poem through five books she displays a command of her materials any reader can admire. While sometimes the matrix within a given effort may not cohere as in “title-poem agreement,” those lapses will be gleaned better perhaps in the context of a biography or in critical studies yet to come. She did write about much of her own life, as noted earlier, in two well-received memoirs. All seven of her books so far display a full life’s work, as poet and memoirist, and in areas of her life beyond purview here. It is fair to say Deborah Digges’s poetry and life reflect confronting one’s ineffable mortality, although in my view reaching the mistaken conclusion that—like a swan—one’s life cannot go on without a true love once found and then tragically lost. Of course, this observation is mutable as well. What is left is the fine distillation of what might have been much more if the will to live had prevailed. One can admire the poems but dispute the meanings, argue the intent, after the poet has gone. This is the fierce joy of literature.
1 “One Poet’s Notes: Remembering Deborah Digges,” December 2, 2009.
2 Shortly after Digges’s posthumous collection, The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart, appeared in the spring of 2010, Douglas Nordfors, writing in suite101.com (10 June 2010), argues that to put Digges into “the Sylvia Plath syndrome” is misguided, given that one of her sons believes she may not have intended to die this way and that allusions to Plath’s death are just too easy an answer. A close reading of her previous work reveals that—“syndrome” or not—suicide was never far from Digges’s concerns. Her paeans to both Plath and Tsvetayeva are not, as Lindfors argues, bolstering “a smokescreen of tentative, shallow criticism.” Unfortunately, a deeper reading of her work suggests precisely the opposite. It is one thing to debunk obvious clues as clichéd and in “a syndrome,” but quite another to attempt refuting the incontrovertible. Digges’s self-destruction was tragic, but this has never been rare among writers —as the deaths of Jack London, Hart Crane, Plath, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Tsvetayeva, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Frank Stanford, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Disch, and Earl McMurray all attest. Deborah Digges made her choice. It is sad, of course, but there it is.
3 Jorie Graham, “Making Connections,” The New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1986.
4No doubt this was a nod to political correctness, quite rabid at the time.
5It is worth noting that Plath died at age thirty in 1963. Digges lived nearly twice as long, dying at fifty-nine in 2009. Plath left two small children. Digges’s two sons were grown. The comparison goes only so far.
6 David Gewanter, Boston Review. December 1995–January 1996, Volume XX, Number 6, 42-43.
8 When a rogue or undesirable person is in the community, as Digges writes in the “Notes” at the back of the book: “‘Rough Music’ was an ancient and medieval practice in Friesland, parts of Holland, and later the Fen Country in England, among other places.” People would make unbearable noise outside the person’s house until he couldn’t stand it any more and decided to leave, never to return. Digges, op. cit. 53.
9 Gewanter, op. cit.
10 Scott Merzback and Noah Hoffenberg, Amherst Bulletin, April 17, 2009.
11 The Book Bench blog, The New Yorker, posted by Jon Michaud, April 16, 2009.
12 Joseph Campana, The Kenyon Review website blog, September 16, 2007.
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