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'Windfall: New and Selected Poems' by Maggie Anderson

Memory and loss pervade Anderson's poems

Sunday, June 25, 2000

By Michael Simms

 
 

Windfall: New and Selected Poems

By Maggie Anderson

University of Pittsburgh Press
$12.95

   
 

In her newest collection, Maggie Anderson, a West Virginia native who teaches at Kent State University, has included poems from three previous books, as well as a generous selection of new work.

Some of my favorite poems explore Anderson’s Appalachian roots, often through meditations on photographs. A 1935 Walker Evans photograph of the graveyard where her aunt and uncle are buried recalls the hardscrabble life of her mountain-bred family. Her grandmother, toothless and uneducated, distrustful of photographers, poses awkwardly in the only picture ever taken of her.

“Spitting in the Leaves” portrays boys in tight jeans and huge hats who have no future but to join the military and be sent to wars in places they have never heard of. These tough people have a clear disdain for the photographer’s art, a recognition that photography, like poetry, uses glimpses of people’s lives to fulfill an artistic agenda that is not shared by the mountain people, with their private griefs and public humiliations.

Many of Anderson’s poems concern the bittersweet nostalgia for the lives we have left behind, lives we have chosen not to lead:

how the day remains behind
the purple rim of light; how anything we leave
forever, in the grand way, returns to us
unsummoned and at last without remorse, in details.

The music of regret often allows Anderson a lyricism that is almost classical in its purity:

At times, however, Anderson’s literary influences, particularly James Wright and Gerald Stern, can be heard in her diction and tone. Though these poems are effective, they detract from the collection as a whole by echoing better-known poets. In “Empirical,” Wright can be heard in the opening lines:

Everything sad that ever happened to me
I have mourned beside a river.
This afternoon I sat by the bridge pilings
and studied the slow drawl of the Willamette.

Wright’s influence is evident in other poems as well, such as “Beyond Even This,” which begins: “Who would have thought the afterlife would/look so much like Ohio?”

Readers of Stern may recognize his celebratory voice in Anderson’s “The Invention of Pittsburgh,” in which she talks about our bridges and mines, slag heaps and churches, “this tough, sweet city of the workers.”

Fortunately, Anderson’s own voice is strong and unmistakable in the new poems. The love poems, “Self-Portrait” and “In the Midst of Our Happiness”; “Literary,” which is about learning to write poetry; and “Knife,” which is about the transforming power of fear, are among the best work that this poet has ever published. One of my favorites is “In Translation,” which contains these elegant lines:

I have hurt people I love
and this sad realization hangs on my heart
like the blossoms of the chestnut ...

At her best, Anderson is confident, lyrical and compassionate, a poet who writes about memory and loss with passion and clarity.


Michael Simms is a Pittsburgh-based poet and publisher.

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