Last night I heard Alison Hawthorne Deming read at an event hosted by the wonderful Smith College Poetry Center. I’d read some of her poems and one of her four books of nonfiction: Writing the Sacred into the Real is a lot about the land’s beauty and fragility, and I was particularly moved by her evocation of life along the shore. While not a memoir, and more about place than particular people, she references her ancestor Nathaniel Hawthorne, becoming pregnant as a teenager and the fractures that made in her family, and the bond with her mother forged decades later.
Last night, standing under the Periodic Table of the Elements, which she said made her happy, Alison Hawthorne Deming read a little from each of her poetry books, including the manuscript she’s currently working on, with some especially poignant poems about her brother and cancer. She began with retellings or “re-entering the stories” of Eve and Persephone. Other poems explore relationships between art and science – two areas she says need each other, for neither alone can save the earth. She spoke of the genesis of “Rope,” the title poem of her most recent collection. She said she’d often walked along the rocky shore of the northern Atlantic and seen her father, son-in-law, and the man she was involved with picking up bits of rope they found washed up. “So of course when you have no idea what’s going on, you write a poem.”
She read from her latest book, Genius Loci, though not the long title poem that investigates layers of history in Prague, where, she writes in her notes, she first heard this Latin phrase and preferred it to “spirit of place” for its “echo of the pagan meaning of the word genius –the guardian spirit assigned at birth to a person, place, or institution.” She discusses being drawn to long poems in an interview with Terrain, saying these speak for our inner need for continuity, and “I like to use research to enlarge the poem.”
The themes of her prose and poetry blend, and sometimes one form slides into the other. In Rope, “Works and Days” is 45 numbered paragraphs with fascinating observations about frogs, Darwin, Merce Cunningham, mirror neurons, and other subjects. It begins with a quote from Mitchell Thomashow: “If the daily news is literally a substitute for morning prayers, then your reading of the day should reflect on questions of meaning and value.” More poems were inspired by and dedicated to friends who share her concerns, or about animals, the topic of her latest prose work, Zoologies: Animals and the Human Spirit. All of her work seems to rise from an effort to find beauty in a dangerous and endangered world, and weaves together truth and hope.
Here’s a link to one of the recent poems she read last night. “Stairway to Heaven,” with its nod to Led Zeppelin, is about animals and her brother’s last days.