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Mortal Words

Book Review: The Woman I Kept to Myself, Grayscale


Published April 7, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

T.S. Eliot's jibe about the "cruelest month" notwithstanding, spring and poetry just seem to go together. Since 1996, when the Academy of American Poets dubbed April National Poetry Month, the connection has been official. This National Poetry Month brings a gift to Vermonters: two new volumes by local poets with national reputations.

On the surface, no two books could look more different. The cover of The Woman I Kept to Myself, by award-winning novelist and Middlebury College writer-in-residence Julia Alvarez, is a flamboyant oil painting rich in reds and tawny yellows. By contrast, the cover image on novelist and University of Vermont professor David Huddle's Grayscale is, appropriately, a black-and-white photograph of three backwoods women who confront us with bleak, hard-bitten stares.

One book seems to promise the passionate, sensuous side of poetry; the other, its asceticism. Someone who reads Huddle and Alvarez back to back, therefore, may be surprised to discover how many themes they share. Growing older, watching parents and other relatives disappear, recalling youth and its heightened vitality, musing on the poet's relevance in the world, teaching undergraduates to versify -- all the common tunes of "midlife poetry" are here.

And both books are haunted by the same faint, leering background presence: death. "Obituaries speak/to me now as poems did in my twenties," writes

Huddle in "Deathlight." In a series of poems called "Seven Trees," Alvarez envisions her own death as "trees/...a row of them/marking a border, still too far away/for me to name them..."

There's something about trees and death, it seems -- as if both authors look to more enduring natural specimens for help in transcending the impermanence of the human body. In "Banyan," Huddle's speaker tries to decide on a tattoo -- "one picture to go down into the cold,/cold ground with me" -- and settles on the image of a wide-spreading banyan tree. "I want birds flying across my shoulders,/...all winging toward rest/in the great tree where I've hidden my body." It's a great image of the body's return to the earth, and also perhaps of our futile desire to "hide" the body from mortality's reach.

If trees endure while generations of human beings pass away, so do poems. Both Alvarez and Huddle are highly self-conscious about their craft. Yet it's in their attitudes toward poetry that we begin to see their differences. In poem after poem, Alvarez celebrates the power of verse to give her life order, meaning, solace... perhaps even a touch of immortality. In "Direct Address," she writes, "I love those poems where writers turn to me,/addressing me as you.../That is the only way the dead come back/as far as I can tell."

Huddle is a bit more cynical. In an acerbic cycle called "The Poem, the Snow, Jane Goodall, and the Vase of Daffodils," he addresses a reader who may be bored, or not there at all. "You don't want to read/A poem about poetry? Please/don't read this. I won't/know the difference."


Just what's so special about poetry anyway? Alvarez, who won her public acclaim as a novelist, confesses in The Woman I Kept to Myself that she prefers the compact format of poems, where words have multiple meanings and a single image can call up a train of associations stretching back to the Garden of Eden. In "Small Portions," she explains, "If truth is in the details, I'm the pope/of the particular, imam of mites,/a god in the minus numbers, a worm/pearling the soil with the teensy bits/I take in and deliver..." While novels tell us things, Alvarez suggests, poems are living demonstrations, "pearling the soil" of our minds the way worms do our gardens.

The irony is that Alvarez's poems often do more telling than showing. While her language can be tightly wound and inventive -- the passage from "Small Portions" is a prime example -- there are many narrative passages in The Woman I Kept to Myself that wouldn't look out of place on a page of prose. This one, for instance, from "Reunion," about the poet's sister: "The visit/goes downhill from there: she accusing me/of being anal, rigid, controlling." Direct address is indeed a wonderful device, but one sometimes wishes that Alvarez would let us read between the lines.

Huddle also narrates mundane events in his life, but he deploys an artful version of everyday language, one that's deceptively low-key and sometimes funny. His themes tend to sneak up and tap you on the shoulder.

In "Is There Anybody Here I Can Say Goodbye To?" the poet gives us a run-on-sentence account of his run-in at the gym with Ray, an older man who forces him to endure locker-room disquisitions on illness and the weather in Florida: "it's real nice there,/whereas here, well, it can/make you shake your head/and give a low whistle." Just as the banality reaches a critical level, Huddle tells us that Ray's "hard little smile/tells me he knows.../...I'm not likely/to miss [him]."

Just as another aging gym-mate has disappeared into a retirement home, so will Ray soon disappear -- and so, it's implied, will the narrator. A tiny encounter suddenly swells to encompass what Huddle calls "the big monsters" -- aging, death and the fear of isolation. It's the theme of King Lear couched in the form of a shaggy-dog story -- and it's that kind of surprise that makes Grayscale the more colorful of the two books.