In Odessa, a new collection of poems by Patricia Kirkpatrick, the self collides with the dismay of the actual. The speaker’s diagnosed with brain cancer, faces divorce, and watches her children leave. The good news is that Kirkpatrick’s precise use of language, humor, and philosophical insight transform such experiences into a sustained and sustaining beauty—impeccably crafted poems that warrant reading and rereading.
A few lines taken from “Stealth Guided Craniotomy for Left-Parietal Parasaggital Tumor: Three Days Later” illustrate the qualities that give Kirkpatrick’s poems such power: “She couldn’t tell aura from grief. Grief from incision / when a charge slid down her cheek. / Her head hurt. Her strip shaved burned. She slurred manic speech.” The poem’s title unsettles: both readers and patient need a narrator to guide them through alienating medical terminology, a diction they must learn to wear like a medical gown that doesn’t fit right, that will never fit right. The mostly monosyllabic language represents the starkness of the experience, a complete trauma that inhabits both body and emotions.
Despite what happens to the body, however, Kirkpatrick teaches us that desire never leaves, that it still yields abundance. We learn this in lines like these from “Letter from United”:
I am writing to say that today when the nurse came
to change my dressing,
she glanced up and said, “Oh, look, is that snow?”
We looked out the window and saw it together,
those white, fringed birds
the first snow of the new season.
Throughout the collection, loss is figured as a barren landscape but is invested with life. In “The Rabbit,” the speaker tells us,
Snow covers everything
but the tracks of the rabbit
suddenly show up.
Pebbled footprints go around in circles,
What hides the grass gives away the rabbit.
Rabbit, I know where you live now.
For a moment I forget
who I am. For a moment
I look out the window as if nothing had happened.
The speaker in these poems has witnessed and participated in a harrowing journey made strangely beautiful by clarity and wry vigor. As we learn, as we need to know, “All my life what wasn’t enough / is suddenly what I want.”
Reading Odessa calls to mind Audre Lorde’s “Poems Are Not Luxuries,” an essay that examines how self-scrutiny feeds the imagination and the work of poetry. Lorde writes, “As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.” Though written in a different time and context, Lorde’s understanding of what good poems can and should do applies precisely to what Kirkpatrick achieves—fearless poems that have been written out of necessity and that are thus vitally important.