A Life Fully Lived: Deborah Garrison's New Poems
A Review of The Second Child and an Interview With the Author
by Kate Hopper
A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Knopf titled "Poetry Re-Dux" and I opened it to find the poem "Pink and White" from Deborah Garrison's latest book, The Second Child. The poem begins with a description of peonies: "tumbled and heavy along/ a fence, fully exploded, nodding/ at the ground…" And it ends like this: "I wasn't sure/ our love would come again,/ and here I am, almost/ kissing the grass like that,/ bursting and rich, cracked/ all over like broken cake—/ makes you cry but still sweet."
I read the poem twice and logged off my computer. Minutes later, I was in the car, driving to the nearest bookstore, and when I returned home with The Second Child, I read it straight through, in one sitting. This is highly unusual for me, partly because I have a three-year old (she was at preschool), and partly because I'm slow when I read poetry. It usually takes me a few poems to get into the voice, to understand a poet's style. Then I take a break. An hour or day later, I'll go back to the collection. Then I need another break. It's slow work for me.
It's not slow work to read Deborah Garrison's poetry. In fact, it doesn't feel like work at all. Garrison is accessible and honest, and she skillfully walks the line between wonder and longing, embodying the beauty and complexity of being a parent and spouse.
Nine years ago, Deborah Garrison's first book, A Working Girl Can't Win, was acclaimed for its ability to describe the ambivalences of newly-married life as an urban, working woman, and you can expect the same kind of candor and subtlety in The Second Child.
Garrison's poems deal with the serious side of parenthood, the sadness of letting go, the fear, and the knowledge that, ultimately, we are not able protect our children from harm. But her poems also detail the delicious moments of being a parent: cupping water with your hands when your daughter is thirsty in the middle of the night; the slow and steady draw on your breast as your baby nurses in the dark; listening, from the other room, as your daughter processes the idea of mortality and begins to understand death.
Garrison has this wonderful ability to stop time and suspend a moment, a gesture. One of my favorite poems in the collection is "Both Square and Round," which begins:
You moments I court—
Back of the head settled
in arm's crook,
rump in my palm,
the whole half a body
just the length of my forearm,
small face twitching toward
She perfectly captures the feeling of holding an infant, and we are lulled into that image until the end of the poem, where there is a shift:
What was it, just
then, I swore to myself
As though I could hold
a magnifying glass
and slow its shaping
I shared this poem with the students in my Mother Words class, and they reacted the same way I had: "Ah, yes, exactly."
Garrison is able to put into words the bittersweet feeling of wanting to hold onto time, even as she understands the futility of attempting this. Read together, the poems in the collection create the rich, layered effect of a life fully lived. In "Dad, You Returned to me Again," the narrator remembers fishing with her father as a child, grasping a trout, "wet and muscular,/ smuggled in our air." She remembers a laughing kiss with her husband in "The Past Is Still There." In these poems, the past is always there, informing the present.
There is also a post-9/11 vulnerability and awareness of mortality that runs through the collection, but this is never overstated. In "Into the Lincoln Tunnel," the narrator whispers "a prayer/ that it not be today, not today, please/ no shenanigans, no blasts, no terrors…" In "September Poem" the narrator feels guilty about longing for another child in the face of the destruction of 9/11. These poems made me think of the introduction to Naomi Shihab Nye's 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, in which Shihab Nye says, "Why should it be any surprise that people find solace in the most intimate literary genre? Poetry slows us down, cherishes small details. A large disaster erases those details. We need poetry for nourishment and for noticing, for the way language and imagery reach comfortably into experience, holding and connecting it more successfully than any news channel we could name." This, for me, is exactly what Garrison's poems do: nourish and notice, cherish and connect.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Deborah on the phone, and what follows is an interview about poetry and parenthood, and where the two intersect.
Kate Hopper: One of the things I love most about the poems in The Second Child is your attention to the details of a moment. I'm wondering if you could talk about whether your focus on specific moments is part of the organic process of making poetry for you or whether it is a more deliberate effort to catalogue the moments of life with young children.
Deborah Garrison: For me, the impulse for a poem arises out of a specific moment. It happens organically, but it's interesting because writing poetry is a way to chronicle some of the moments of my life and my children's lives. My youngest is now almost five, so when I look at some of the poems in The Second Child, I think, oh, that's how it felt to nurse my son. It's amazing how much we do forget as parents. So by writing poetry, I am, in fact, fixing these moments in time so that they don't disappear altogether.
Kate Hopper: You work full time and have a family. How do you fit writing into your busy life?
Deborah Garrison: I am grateful to have a very rich life and a job that I love, and truthfully, writing is not even on my day-to-day agenda. I have a nine-year old, a six-year old and an almost-five-year old, and I just can't convince myself it's a priority to close myself off from them and spend time alone in a room, which is what I need in order to write. I'm just a person living her life, and once in a while I'm struck by something—a detail, a moment—and this might become a poem. Sometimes while I'm commuting into the city, I scribble ideas or images in a notebook. I also keep a notebook by my bed, and occasionally I jot something down just before I fall asleep or when I wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea. These notes develop into poems eventually, but I write so infrequently that it might be a couple of months before this happens. I'm someone who is seduced by life, and my life is very full. Writing poetry fits into the interstices.
One of the great things about poetry, though, is that there is no pressure to make a living from it. So I'm really in no hurry to write.
Kate Hopper: How was writing the poems in this collection different from writing the poems in A Working Girl Can't Win?
Deborah Garrison: In both cases, the poems flowed from a place that was authentic. I was actually surprised by the popularity of A Working Girl Can't Win. I just write the poems that are in my heart, and it almost feels like an accident if people end up being interested in them. With The Second Child, I was a little nervous when I realized I was writing a collection about motherhood. I worried that it might not be taken as seriously, and I think this made me censor myself in the beginning.
Kate Hopper: Do you think this collection has been taken as seriously as A Working Girl Can't Win?
Deborah Garrison: Well, I'm not sure. I think that motherhood as a subject can blind people. They are distracted by it—they have ideas about what motherhood poetry should or shouldn't be—and sometimes they can't get past this to really see the way a poem was constructed. But as a poet, I have to write what's authentic for me, and being a mother and writing about motherhood and my children is what interests me right now. I won't apologize for that.
Kate Hopper: As I read "Sestina for the Working Mother," I thought of Gwendolyn Brooks and her use of the ballad and sonnet to write about topics like women, poverty, and the lives of people of color, things not openly addressed in the Academy in the 1950s. I imagine people took her more seriously because of the form in which she wrote, and indeed, the Pulitzer proves she was taken seriously. Do you think that using traditional forms makes people take your poetry about motherhood more seriously? If so, did this factor into your decisions about form?
Deborah Garrison: I think sometimes using traditional form provides a challenge and a frame for material that needs shape. It also gives you ideas as a writer; it adds something to material that can otherwise just sit there, and it enlivens the process in some way that is beyond its technical value. You ask if I thought I hoped it would make my work appear more serious or perhaps be taken more seriously, but I have never used form with any purpose outside the pleasure of it in itself, or the structure it gave. I had actually never written a sestina before, not since exercises when I was in college. I was thinking about some of Donald Justice's poems about middle class sadness, in which he uses villanelles and sestinas, and it occurred to me the plight of the working mother, with its endless iterations of saying goodbye and the repeated pattern of coming and going in that kind of life, was meant for a sestina. I think the form adds something to my understanding of that experience—I don't know if that is true for readers, but I hope so.
Kate Hopper: Who are some of the poets who inspire you?
Deborah Garrison: I read a lot of contemporary poetry as a part of my job, and there are some wonderful poets out there. The Collected Poems Of Thomas Hardy sits next to my bed, and I return to it over and over again. Hardy was capable of so many different tones and approaches. I also love Frank O'Hara, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Philip Larkin. I did my master's thesis in English literature on Larkin. He was so attentive to tone and craft, and he, like Frost, was a poet of ordinary speech. I love that.
Kate Hopper: What are you working on now?
Deborah Garrison: Right now, I'm back to living and racing around. It will be a while before I write another poem. I have one or two drifting around in my mind, but it might be a year before I get them down on paper. It will be ten years, probably, before my next book.
If it does, indeed, take ten years for Garrison's next book to appear, I'm confident it will be worth the wait.
Deborah Garrison is the author of A Working Girl Can't Win and The Second Child. She worked on the editorial board of The New Yorker for many years and is now a poetry editor at Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon Books. She lives with her husband and children in Montclair, New Jersey.
Kate Hopper is a writer, teacher, and mother. She teaches Mother Words at The Loft Literary Center. She writes about literature, writing, and motherhood on her blog, Mother Words: Mothers Who Write. She lives in Minneapolis with her daughter and husband.
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