Louise Taylor


Exiting Circles of Safety in the Poetry of Deborah Pope

I had heard about Deborah Pope from Betty Adcock, Meredith College’s poet-in-residence, who described her as a promising young poet who taught at Duke. But I first bumped into her work in a book display at a professional meeting. There in 1992, I found her first collection of poems, Fanatic Heart, and opened to the poem “There is something.” When I finished reading it, I bought the book.


There is Something


There is something of every good-bye in this.
Somehow it is always winter,
there is snow at the curb,
the driveways are gray,
the soles of your shoes
are turning dark and wet.
She stands there in her bathrobe.
She has just come from
packing sandwiches.
You are pushed by some schedule,
and the weather,
compelled by her voice,
which is speaking.
She kisses your cheek
and hands you your life
in the neat paper bag.
For this moment in her face,
all your seams are mended,
your habits white.
You hug her and smile.
Your gift is your silence,
you leave.
Yet later when you remember
it will be that always
her eyes were sad,
her hand on your sleeve.

There are many pleasures in reading a poem: the pleasure of evocative images, the pleasure of repeating sounds, and the pleasure of arriving at an “ah ha.” But there is another pleasure that trumps all these, and that is the pleasure of reading something that captures a feeling or an experience you’ve had– captures it so fully in so few words that it takes your breath away. That is the pleasure I felt on first reading “There is something.” This poem speaks to me because I have played both roles– the daughter eager to hit the road and the mother with her hand on the sleeve, longing to help her child navigate the tricky road ahead.

This poem is also an apt introduction to what I want to tell you about the poetry of Deborah Pope. This poem is about a transition, about a time when the mother, who has been in the driver’s seat, must turn over the wheel to the daughter, who is taking control of her own life. And the poems of Deborah Pope focus on change— on the fact that, at every moment, the places, people, and relationships that order our lives are changing. In response to this flux, Pope captures the wish of our hearts to hold onto the old order, if not forever, at least for a moment longer. In addition, she demonstrates the equally familiar habit of returning to losses to tease from them what they have to teach. In her three volumes of poetry— Fanatic Heart, Mortal World, and Falling Out of the Sky— Pope probes the pain produced by loss. And as she does so, her responses to loss change as well— a change that is reflected in the imagery of the poems, particularly in the repeated motifs of the circle and the road.

In her first collection, Fanatic Heart, there is a tension between the safety of the circle and the risk of the road. The collection opens with “Passage,” a poem of the road. In this somber poem, a family are traveling at night in a car. The poem focuses on their isolation and on the eery darkness through which they move. Although the family circle is intact and in the car with her, the poet feels a sense of unreality: “We move in another dimension. / Moths swim up in our headlights.” She looks down the larger road they are traveling and sees, like Emily Dickinson, that already “the horses’ heads are toward eternity.” The children in the car seem to “sleep in shapes / they will settle to in time / on the ocean floor.” In the grip of this foreboding, the poet reflects: “What did any of it come to? / The only light is what / we carry with us.” In “Passages,” the road is dark and silent; its end is death.

Though not all the road poems in the first collection are as bleak as “Passages,” there are others where, on the road, someone is lost. In “The Boy on Roan Mountain,” an eight-year-old runaway wanders in a mountain wilderness. For this child, the road is hardly more threatening than his home life. As he rambles, he is “afraid of raccoon and catamount,/ afraid of the dark closet at home.” But apparently he tries to get back home: he is heard calling “Daddy, I’m coming out.” Tangled trails, however, prove too much for him, and he perishes “miles from the last, lost road.”

In another road poem from the first collection, a woman is not so much lost as cut loose from her moorings. In “Photograph of a Woman Homesteader,” the woman has followed a wagon trail from the familiar world of family and community to the harsh and isolated world of the frontier. In the photo, she wears clothes from her earlier life, but in the background is “this blankness, the endless / sweep of buffalo grass as far / as the incongruous camera reaches”. Contemplating this survivor, the poet imagines the loneliness this woman has endured:

delivering herself over and over,
cords cut, a child lost, days
before the doctor came, going
months without hearing her nearest
neighbor . . . .

The poet understands how such radical dislocation--a risk of taking to the road--could drive a woman mad. After all, says Pope, “The direction / she has come from is gone.”

A road poem that captures the inevitable losses of life’s journey is “Hard Climb Road.” An elegy to the poet’s grandmother, “Hard Climb Road” retraces the poet’s long drive from North Carolina to Ohio to her grandmother’s funeral. The changing landscape is recorded with precision: the Carolina blue sky, the outlet malls, the roadside stands, the mountain vistas, the creek winding below the interstate, the cattle in fields and laundry on lines, and, of course, the road construction. But the poem also documents the landscape of the heart as the poet thinks of the different travelers involved in this passage. The grandmother has traveled from the stylish young woman the poet remembers from photos to a helpless old woman and now to death, a journey whose astonishing speed once caused the grandmother to muse, “I do not feel old, it is only / something about my face.” The poet herself is at a different point on this road, and her two children are traveling toward events they are too young to understand. They bicker in the back seat, “sing out at every crane, / thrill through blasting zones.” Yet they are part of this climb, and their perceptions shape the poet’s as she records the exhilaration of driving through the mountains:

We fly down the far side of vistas
that make majesty almost tangible,
forests like a murky pool we sink in,
greening as we surface.

“Hard Climb Road” moves in the last section toward acceptance of loss. What works well here is Pope’s skill at suggesting this acceptance by documenting meticulously “the last leg home” — crossing a river at sunset and heading west into the night. By this time, the children have fallen asleep in “the quiet universe of the car.” As darkness falls, the poet’s way is partially lit by tail lights of the cars ahead. The names of the county roads she passes— Grace’s Run, Tranquility Pike, Hard Climb Road— for her, “toll the stations” they pass. And the poem ends with moon’s slow rise from behind the trees:

At last, it rises free,
a piece of ivory,
a bright bone,
a slip of a thing,
washed smooth and clean
in the long pull of the dark.

Although the word “circle” is not used in “Hard Climb Road,” the image of “the quiet universe of the car” is one of many images of enclosed space Pope uses to suggest a circle that binds and protects those within. The sense of a charmed circle is created in “Palmer Lake,” a nostalgic poem in which the poet remembers the summer vacations of childhood. This circle is not physical, for the poet says, “We stayed in cabins we were hardly / ever in.” Yet the family circle of this poem includes children swimming off the dock, mothers in metal lawn chairs, “shaped like / dippers we traced in the skies at night,” fathers playing cards in “pools of yellow light,” and grandfathers digging for night crawlers in the darkness beyond the cabins. The image which captures both the charmed circle and its impermanence is the poet’s image of the children drifting off to sleep at bedtime:

slipping
off through gray silk, silent
over shallows rinsed with gold,
where childhood drifted,
and disappeared, with the dreaming . . . .

Other poems with an enclosed space or circle include “Late,” where the poet and her family are together in the yard on an autumn afternoon, and she creates a circle with her gaze: “I could hold you all in my eyes.” The importance of holding the family circle intact is repeated in the poem “Happy,” where the poet rejects as cliché labels like “the happiest day of my life.” She suggests that happy days may be ordinary ones, days not even particularly memorable. In picturing such a day, she imagines another domestic scene in autumn--a day with a stew simmering, a fire in the fireplace, a dog sleeping near it. But for the day to be happy, the family circle must be complete:

It was the year you knew
where your family was,
you could pick up a phone
and hear the voice
of everyone you cared for.

In the poems above, the circles are implicit, but the protective circle is made explicit in at least two poems in Fanatic Heart— “Signs” and “Equinox.” “Signs,” the poem you find inside your program, is a poem about the signs, or portents, the poet senses as she and her husband commit to buying a house. In this poem, there are many circles. Surveying their new home, the couple stand in a circle: “We stood at the center of a compass / of trees, such clarity in each degree, / brilliant dusk receding all around.” Their fingers interlace in a rounded tent. The faces of their children are “haloed” with morning light. Even the twigs are strung with “seed pearls of rain.” Yet despite these promising portents, the poet is haunted by the foreboding that nothing is permanent: “The solidity of this house is surface, / the permanence of anything is myth.”

But having articulated her conviction that nothing is permanent, the poet ends the poem with a wish for her mate. She wishes him “whole years / as single as our children’s faces,” light he will carry with him, and

. . . sight that finds
in vagrant rivulets of rain
maps that make a difference
in the way you live.

Even in this poem where the poet would invoke a protective shield around their new home, images of the road appear. As they embark on this venture together, she says to her mate, “As the gypsies say, good road.” Although she wishes to step into safety, she recognizes that life is a constant stepping out.

The final poem, “Equinox,” is the other poem in which circles are explicit. “Equinox” is another ode to an autumn afternoon. Like “Happy,” this poem celebrates the ordinary, the middle--the time between daylight and dark, between summer and fall. In the forest nearby, the poet sees a sunlit “circle of trees,” where it looks as if time stands still, where “one might . . . step in and out of whatever / hour one would choose.” Although poet is at home, she has an atavistic feeling that she should be setting up camp: “It seems I should be gathering wood / for a fire to be built in a ring / of stones.” Yet in this moment of stasis, the impulse to action is a false alarm: “there is nothing waiting for me, / nothing I need do, adrift / in the curious no-weather between / summer and fall.” In this poem of the ring and the circle, the poet has achieved a moment of equipoise. She says: “No longer do I ask about change.” Although there is activity and change all around her, she has achieved a stance that allows her to focus on “how fixed, / how motionless / the whole remains.”

But despite the tranquility of this last poem, there are clear and repeated images throughout Fanatic Heart suggesting that no circle— however loving— offers safe haven. In the poem “Frank Benson, Portrait of My Daughters” Pope captures a painter trying to capture a moment. She pictures him striving to preserve his daughters’ youth just as they are poised to leave the family circle to travel their own roads. Pope senses the painter’s longing:

Daughters, daughters,
their father’s tints whisper, holding
a moment more the light, the long
pause of their century’s spring.

By ending Fanatic Heart with a poem that captures a moment of equilibrium, a moment within a safe circle, Pope is doing what she imagines Benson doing--holding onto a moment, a moment in which change seems counterbalanced by an enduring “whole” (“Equinox”).

In her second and third collections of poetry, Pope never returns to this idea of equilibrium. Although she celebrates golden moments in later poems, her focus is on how fleeting they are. In later poems, the poet examines the erosion of relationships and the new channels cut by change. And in doing so, she returns to images of the circle and the road. But new contexts give these images emotional freight different from that found in Fanatic Heart.

Images of the road appear frequently in Pope’s second collection, Mortal World, a set of poems that look unflinchingly at the tangle of feelings enmeshing two people at the end of a love affair. But whereas in Fanatic Heart, “road” poems focus on the risks of moving forward, in Mortal World risk turns to wreck. In the poem “Accident,” the poet’s “small son” is writing a story about a train wreck— a wreck, he assures his mother, in which “no one gets hurt.” And the poet wonders,

Is he telling me he knows
we have veered off our track,
the signal lights are broken,
switches thrown?
Is he telling me he knows
what derailment waits.

Images of wrecks appear not only in the son’s invented story, but in her anxiety for her children’s safety in “As the Children’s Carpool Departs”:

. . . It happens,
The truck, the drunk,
the sleepy-eyed mother like me
that shatters the air and nothing
is ever unbroken again.

Not only has risk been realized as wreck, but in this collection, the poems of the road are less about moving forward— and more about being stalled at a dead end. In many of these poems, someone is at the end of a road or end of a trip. The first poem in the collection, “Leaving,” begins, “I was waiting for you / at the end of the long / gravel road.” In “Departure, Nice,” weary travelers who are “so close to the end” of their journey lie awake in their hotel room, listening to

. . . bar-hoppers, gawkers, tourists,
people still with something left
to spend.

In one of these poems, “Sunrise, Interchange, Ithaca,” the poet subverts the epic epithets of Homer to capture the exhaustion and frayed nerves of travelers near the end of a trip. At the Ithaca interchange, dawn arrives not “rosy-fingered” but “mean / anorexic, watery pink.” Whereas night obscured the realities of the trip, morning reveals that “the road is a hard / bowel, a bad cough.”

Although in “Sunrise, Interchange, Ithaca,” the poet exposes the ragged feel of a trip stripped of romance, in other poems she evokes sympathy for the two lovers (or travelers) who valiantly stick to the route, ignoring signs that they are bound for different destinations. In “Picture on the River Cherwell,” a poem of the river instead of the road, the poet captures the labored back-and-forth of both the rowing and the relationship in the way the lines are laid out on the page. What she sees in this poem is the separation that already exists between them. Yet what she admires in her partner is

. . . the labor you are making
to move us doggedly on
through the currentless,
oily-green water.

In Mortal World, which documents the end of a love affair, some circles are fragile and others are already broken. In “Bloodspell,” the poet remembers a moon she saw on the way home from a lovers’ tryst— a setting moon “like a circle neatly torn in half.” This torn moon suggests both the tearing open of the poet as she succumbs to bloodspell and the painful “opening again” when the love affair dies.

The collection ends with an image of circles— or bubbles — destined to burst. In “Boy Blowing Bubbles,” the fragility of the bubbles is announced in the first line: “They erupt.” As the bubbles float from the bubble wand, “perfect in their roundness,” the boy blowing them seems unperturbed by their impermanence. We are told that the bubbles “erupt / with the suddenness / and ease of his laughter.” The last image of this poem and of the collection is of the bubbles floating away while the bubble blower looks on unfazed. Says the poet,

Continuously,
they ride away
in the curve of leaves,
scoop of sky,
rolling without wind
through midsummer,
his gaze steady and lifted
as any creator
to the beautiful,
mortal world
he still can take
into his heart
without misgiving.

But the word “still” implies that the time will come when the bubble blower— like the poet— must confront the suffering entailed in the impermanence of our “beautiful, mortal world.”

Whereas in Fanatic Heart, the poet uses images of enclosed space to suggest a protective circle or haven, in Mortal World, there is no safe haven. In the poem “Forecast,” the prediction of a flash flood evokes in the poet images of being “swept away” by water and by passion. In either case, the result is the same: “the safe world slipping away.” In Mortal World, even places designed to be secure—cages at a zoo or a burial vault—cannot forestall the forces of change.

When Pope presents enclosed spaces where we might expect to find safety, she is at pains to point out that many a “safe world” is illusory. In a marriage bed, we might hope to find intimacy and safety, but in “In the Night of the Heart,” Pope shows us how hazardous such a bed can be:

I want to crawl across the broken
glass of the bed, cut myself
on the barbed wire of your shoulders.

In a hospital parking lot when a couple have reached the emergency room in time, we might expect a new awareness of how much they love each other. What we get in “In the Parking Lot” is the poet’s editing of this ending. The poet concedes that there is a temptation to feel after a crisis that other problems are unimportant. Under the mercury lights of the parking lot, she says, “we seemed to have stepped / into a life . . . shorn of superfluities.” But real life does not allow them to remain there as the word “almost” makes clear in the following lines:

I could almost imagine a life
so cleansed, everything given away,
where all that we knew,
or cared about, was love,
and the end of love,
and everything needed to save us
was within reach.

Although most circles in Mortal World are fragile or fractured, there are three that are more enduring— though no more protective. One is the set of circles in “Circle of Night.” In this poem, the circle in the title refers literally to the darkness that shrouds a neighbor’s house before moonrise. But the circle of night also suggests the encompassing grief felt by that family over the loss of a son— “There’s a death in the house next door.” And it refers to a larger circle of grief that takes in friends and acquaintances--who know of the death without knowing how to respond. This sense of sorrow both draws them toward the grieving family and holds them apart. Writes Pope:

I stand at the window and look across.
What do they say to each other?
We keep to ourselves out here.
The nights are an iron black.

Another enduring but threatening circle is the “circle of aim” in “The Last Animal Dies in the Sarajevo Zoo.” This poem evokes the tightening ring of terror in a war-torn city by focusing on the gradual extermination of the animals in the zoo. As autumn rains bring down the leaves, those under siege— including zoo-keepers— become clearer targets: “I / read how their keepers were shot.”. As time drags on, the food supply is depleted: “I / read how the animals starved one by one.” The tightening noose around Sarajevo is captured in the image of a circle:

. . . I no longer wonder, I
only wait for the circle of aim to tighten, no release
from the cross hairs that would bear us all down.

And a third circle whose center holds in this collection of poems is the poet’s circling back through the life and death of a love affair. She announces her intention in the opening poem: “I wanted to forget you, / forget everything, . . . / so that I could / come back / and remember it / all from the start.” Although the individual poems are lyrics— capturing the events and emotions of a moment, taken together, they hint at a narrative, one that traces a love affair from the passionate coupling of “Beginning” to the poignant uncoupling of “July, Carolina,” as the poet watches her partner disappear into “the gold” of a mid-summer morning.

If these poems are read consecutively— in the order of the collection, the underlying narrative can shape the reading of all the poems, even those that appear unrelated to the disintegrating marriage. For example, the poem “Killing Copperheads,” taken out of the context of the collection, might be read as a self-deprecating look at a suburban couple who learn how to kill snakes and become complacent in their self-sufficiency. But in the context of the surrounding poems, the competence of the snake-killers seems to mirror their power to hurt one another. And the apprehension the poet feels as the result of snake-killing hints at the dangers of the lovers’ simmering conflict:

. . . I cannot walk out
anymore without watching
for the twig to twitch,
shadows to veer,
for a low mottling of light
to pour noiselessly out,
insinuate itself around
a bone-strew of roots
and deadfall, the slick
dispatch of our acts.

In Mortal World, there is no longer a tension between the risk of the road and safety of the circle. In Mortal World, the wreck has happened, and the poems are the reckoning. And this reckoning does not lead to equilibrium or acceptance. The next-to-last poem in the collection, “Intermezzo,” is another ode to an autumn afternoon. It is another sunlit evening with “lemony fingers of light” filtering through the trees. The sounds, the smells, the light are much what they were in “Equinox”; but the poet’s perception is different. This time instead of seeing how fixed the whole remains, she senses how ephemeral the moment is. The very title suggests impermanence, and the golden haze seems a mere trick of the light:

A haze of gold holds us all.
Useless, glorious, the blazing ball
in the grass, the glazed-over coffee,
the ransomed foil of chocolate.

The next and final poem is “Boy Blowing Bubbles,” a poem which seems by its placement to comment on “Intermezzo.” Intermezzo’s “haze of gold that holds us all” is followed immediately by bursting bubbles.

Although Falling Out of the Sky, Pope’s third collection of poems, may seem to pick up where Mortal World ended– with the poet grappling to find perspective on loss, in Falling Out of the Sky the poet is less explicit about what the losses are. What she captures instead are the feelings evoked by loss and the struggles to learn from it. In the first poem, “Lines from the Book of Days,” the poet articulates the poignant and familiar feeling that growing old happens so soon and yields so meager a harvest. She writes,

I had expected more perspective,
I had expected more calm,
. . .
To know whom and what I loved
seemed little enough to ask.
I looked for more permanence
in these matters.

Later in the poem, she wonders, “Where is the pattern / time promised to disclose? . . ./ It is all so partial, / so improvised.” But this poem and this collection are more than a lament. By the end of the poem, the poet finds her “eyes lifting / fingers opening.” Here we find her drawn toward life, seeking a way to grow.

Whereas in her first collection of poems, there are repeated images of circles and roads, in Falling Out of the Sky, these images, though still present, are less prominent. Where the poet is— on the road or encircled by shelter— seems less important than what she learns. In “Lines from the Book of Days,” the poet suggests that picking the right road can be dicey:

I had thought the choices
would be clearer,
that there would be more of them,
that when I came to those
forecast utensils in the road,
the trails would be cut,
signposts appear.

The wordplay in “forecast utensils” illustrates the point: roads and choices are never what we expect. Here the reader expects the word “fork” and even gets it— buried in “forecast” — but may “get it” only upon looking back.

In another road poem, “Cura Animarum Outside Canaan, West Virginia,” the poet implies how unpredictably our way winds ahead of us. In this poem, someone is driving through the mountains. As the car weaves around curves and over hills, glimpses of a farm flash into view: a combine harvesting grain, a family graveyard, and some stones arranged on a hillside to spell Repent. The winding road offers no long view, only short glimpses between one turn and the next. Says the poet,

Beyond, a low dwindle of stones
descends a family slope
before they fall from sight
in the next turn and the next,
the hollows closing,
disclosing, in a flung rag
of birds, the untracked veer
of our way.

From the Repent stones to the headstones, the way is an “untracked veer.”

If in these poems there are no clearly marked routes, there are also few safe circles. And those exist in memory. In “Pantoum for a Child in Fall,” the poet watches her son running through the woods in autumn and knows that “this is the scene I want to remember.” Although no family circle— however snug— can keep him with her, she preserves this scene in memory the way a snow scene is caught in a paperweight. The poet pictures herself replaying this moment in the future:

I will turn this globe over in my hand.
When he disappears,
I will hold his wild career of light.

Here the poem itself becomes a way of encircling and holding the moment.

The poem “It Was” preserves another moment to be savored, the aura of light encircling a house after a storm. Even the children in the house realize how beautiful this fleeting afterglow is, and call to the adults who are already at the windows

all suspended
in sudden, time-rinsed
transparency—
wanting to hold
before it was gone
such accidental, possessable
gold gold.

This “accidental” circle of light can be neither created nor controlled, but it is “possessable” in the moment and in memory.

Other circles in Falling out of the Sky, those not created in art or memory, are likely to be confining and even dangerous. In “The Sixth Lesson: Exile,” the poet captures in metaphor what Emily Dickinson calls the “chill” and “stupor” that follow great pain. Pope pictures this numbness as falling through the center of the earth to

where the world reaches away
blank horizonless
a perfect white circle of ice
and erasure.

Here the circle holds tight but offers no protection.

In this same poem, we find another circular image, one that appears three times in Falling out of the Sky— the spiral. In “The Sixth Lesson: Exile,” the narrator says:

I curl in
a tight spiral
against myself
a nautilus
a little world.

Like some sea creature, the narrator curls inward to protect herself, but the choice of preposition against implies that this reflexive closing in works against her. Another poem in which a spiral appears is the dramatic monologue “Playing It Out,” where the narrator is asked what lies ahead. After answering that she does not know, she lists the few things she does know, including “how tight the spiral inward feels.” If circles can be confining, a spiral— a circle drawing in on itself— is even more so.

In contrast to the confining spirals and circles in these poems is a wonderful image of opening up— an image found at the end of the first poem, “Lines from the Book of Days.” The poet, who has just confessed to feeling foolish and having been “wrong about so much,” says,

I did not know I could possibly feel
as if nothing had happened yet,
as if it were only now beginning,
breath rising, eyes lifting,
fingers opening for their first
wondering touch of the world.

Here the constrictive circle of grief and anger releases its grip. Here the movement is not inward but outward. Here the poet claims for a moment what Zen-Buddhists call the “beginner’s state,” the knowledge that one knows nothing about how to solve the problem at hand.

The need for this beginner’s condition is implied in “Plainspoken,” a poem about Georgia O’Keefe’s painting Cebolla Church, 1937. This painting, says Pope, indicates that “there is no clear way / to enter here.” There is no road— either broad or narrow— leading to sanctuary. Instead, the poet interprets the painting as saying:

Come by way
of the hard, flat field,
come to the unmarked door,

come barefoot and wait
without intentions
under the sun.

“This,” the poem contends, “is how the sacred happens.” The phrase “wait[ing] without intentions” suggests that sacred gifts, such as acceptance of loss, cannot be forced but may come by chance (“happen”) to one who is ready and waiting.

A unifying thread of this last collection is the quest announced in the first poem, the quest for perspective, for a pattern that makes a life make sense. The poems imply that there has been a pattern-disrupting blow in the poet’s life, one that has left her in a position analogous to that of birds who fly into her plate glass window in the poem “Reckonings.” Some birds break their necks, but some “are only stunned.” The poet wonders “what those who rise / carry back with them / into the sky.” In this collection, more important than images of roads and circles are references to rising and falling. And the image of stunned birds returning to the skies suggests in metaphor that some who fall rise again.

And it is in metaphor that pieces of a pattern emerge in these poems. In the poem “The City of Heaven,” Joshua Stewart of Syllable, Georgia, has been told by an angel to construct the City of Heaven. Though at first stymied by lack of materials, he finds that he is “rich in one thing,” the tin cans people have been dumping for years at the back of his lot. So he starts to build but runs out of cans before he finishes. The angel, who returns to check on the project, tells him, “Joshua, the answer is simple— / if you want more cans, / you must plant them.” And when Joshua plants cans on his own property, the yield is stunning:

all sizes and shapes,
silvered and knuckled,
pleated and petaled, abloom
in rainbows of colors,
going wild, fertile
a hundredfold over,
rising their sure
and shining way
toward heaven.

Here the builder begins with what he has— trash— and transmutes it into art.

Similarly, the poet in this collection begins— as she has before— with what she has. And what she has at this stage in life— a marriage that has ended, a grief that won’t go away, children poised to leave the nest, and a body that threatens to betray her— seems as prosaic as an onion, the name of that Spanish church in “Plainspoken.” In describing Cebolla Church [onion church], Pope writes, “there is no clear way / to enter here.” Likewise, when attempting to make sense— much less poetry— from the materials of her life, she may have felt ‘there’s no clear way to enter here.’ But what Pope chooses to do is “Agrarrar la cebolla” [grab the onion] — a Spanish idiom meaning “to seize power” (“Plainspoken”). By grabbing the onion of her life and pondering it, she seizes power— the power of seeing and telling the truth.


In all three collections of poetry, Deborah Pope attempts to capture what moments of her life have felt like— what reviewer Leslie Ullman calls “the inner weather [they have] called forth” (in Poetry 176.4 [2000], page 223). And in all three, she renders truth in lines so taut there is no room for sentimentality. But there is a change in the poems from Fanatic Heart to Falling Out of the Sky. In the early poems, the poet focuses more on control— on avoiding risks and enfolding loved ones in circles of safety. In Falling Out of the Sky, there is a relaxation of control— an opening up in place of a spiraling in. In the last poems of the collection— called “lessons,” the poet turns an unflinching gaze on the painful and sometimes destructive stages of grief, to see what, if anything, they have to teach. There are no easy answers— no advice, no warnings. But there is a progress in the emotions recorded. And in the poem “Last Lesson,” short, succinct lines unfold a gradual acceptance that “we learn / what we love / by what we lose.”

To the end, however, the poet refuses to tell more or less than the truth about the onion in her hand. She refuses to pose as one who counts her loss as gain. But in “The Angel Yet to Come,” she imagines such acceptance. She wonders,

What must it be like
to be without
the shawl of illusion,
to be past . . .


the difficult arts
of belief and blame,
to climb
by a means of falling.

Here she imagines an acceptance that goes beyond resignation, an acceptance which affirms that lessons from loss can transform a life for good.

Deborah Pope has written poems that are playful, poems that are witty, and poems that are passionate-- in short, a richer variety than I have shown you today. I have focused on poems dealing with change. I have done so because to me these are powerful poems that show a pattern of development and because these poems, which look at the disruptive force of change, articulate something I need to hear.

The poet Richard Wilbur, who began writing only after his experiences in World War II, once observed that poems are not so much messages to other people as “conflicts with disorder.” He claimed that “One does not use poetry . . . as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.” In recent months, we have all been shaken by events that suggest it isn’t just our world but the whole world that is getting out of hand. Like the poet in those earlier poems, many of us long to harbor a moment longer in a circle of safety-- in an unbroken family, a steady job, reliable investments, and safe public spaces. The phrase “homeland security” is designed to appeal to just such longings. But when I piece together the pattern of my life, what I find is what Deborah Pope implies in the poem “Signs”-- that the safe circles are never permanent and that life inevitably and continually compels us to step out.

"Exiting Circles of Safety in the Poetry of Deborah Pope" is copyrighted by Louise Taylor and reprinted here with the author's permission.

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Louise Taylor teaches English at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was a co-author of the Prentice Hall Encyclopedia of Mathematics (1983). Articles by Professor Taylor have appeared in Tar Heel Magazine and The Christian Science Observer.