Shrewsbury poet Joan Aleshire's latest book, Days of Our Lives, is a memoir in poems strung together like beads on a rosary or an abacus, both of which are ways of marking the passage of time. Set against the backdrop of the social and political upheaval of the '60s and '70s, the book is a study in slow transformation: the kind that accrues imperceptibly, over boring afternoons and epic arguments and other random data points that comprise the trajectory of a life.
Aleshire, who served for two decades on the faculty of the poetry MFA program at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., has previously published five books of poetry, as well as essays and translations. She does not explicitly identify herself as the narrator of Days of Our Lives, but the "memoir" label — from the publisher and in the book's blurbs — suggests a collapse of author and protagonist.
We meet her as a young woman on the cusp of falling in love with the man who will become her husband. He quickly reveals himself to be a surly, philandering chauvinist, and the narrator subsumes herself in the fiction of domesticity. She describes the particular miseries of their relationship with unaffected precision, presenting each instance of betrayal as if it were a curiosity behind glass.
"He'd promised to call," says the narrator, recounting one of the many nights her husband chose another woman over her, "but I read to the child / in an evening silence that had its own sound, / and kept me awake long after I'd put her to bed, / telling myself what Rilke said about marriage / between independent souls. I made a poem / of it, and saw it falter in the bleak dawn."
The malaise of the outside world creeps in, too, like a radio that happens to be on in the background. When the narrator and her husband move out of their New York City apartment, going their separate ways in what will turn out to be a false start at ending the marriage, they pack their belongings "to the rhythm of the Watergate hearings / on the small screen, exhilarated / that what had been hidden / was coming to light..."
As the culture at large reckons with the Vietnam War, Aleshire's narrator undergoes a parallel process of self-realization. It happens by small degrees — trading modest clothes for a "...backless Pakistani top / held on only by a string...," allowing men to stare at her on the subway, moving to a communal house where everyone eats a lot of sourdough bread. But her ultimate liberation comes in the form of a graduate poetry workshop. There, for the first time, the narrator feels acknowledged as an artist and a human being: "...I was airy, worthy / of being inspired, breathed into, released."
The speaker's journey from ingénue to artist is archetypal without being abstract, anchored by moments of specific weirdness. In one poem, the narrator encounters a monkey in the hallway of her apartment, "...its body / wrapped in its long thin arms, / as if to keep me from lumbering / toward it, uncertain and afraid." In her somnolent haze, she can't recall how she got it to leave, "but maybe it decided to go / on its own," Aleshire writes, "as if it only needed / to remind us: disturbance can come / any time, unforeseen and for no reason."
Aleshire captures those moments of chaos with impossibly cool restraint; her most acerbic lines snag you unexpectedly, like an exposed nail in an old wooden doorframe. As the narrator rifles through a box containing photos of her husband's paramours, she registers one with particular disgust: "...There of course / was Y's snout-like nipple nudging / its way out of a fur-lined cape."
As in the long-running TV soap opera to which Aleshire's title nods, these instances of disorder are tropes that get recycled from one season of life to the next — the unfaithful husband, the rogue primate in the house. Finally, art transmutes them into something less panicky; something that shapes, rather than undermines, the self.