Bright Buoy, Dark Sea: Kelli Russell Agodon’s Dialogues with Rising Tides

Reviewed By

Published this past April by Copper Canyon Press, Kelli Russell Agodon’s fourth collection Dialogues with Rising Tides is a book of liminal spaces. The poems explore figurative as well as literal shores and edges, addressing what is beyond and what is held among two (or more) elements. The book is hopeful and sad, loving and vengeful, gentle and fierce. Like a buoy, Agodon’s poems rise above and go below the surface.

I used the word “buoy” because buoys are liminal. Both immersed in the water and bobbing in air. They are both warning and protection. Buoys indicate boundaries which are dynamic rather than fixed—boundaries comprised of light and imagination and mutual agreement. No hard lines, no barriers, no fence of barbwire and concrete. Agodon’s work refuses binary either/or assumptions—the poems challenge evaluative thinking while immersing us in generous and careful attention. From “Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror”—

I watched a woman having a breakdown
in the mall today, and when the security guard
tried to help her, what I felt was all of us
peeking from her purse as she threw it
across the floor into Forever 21. And yes,
the walls felt like another way to hold us

Agodon’s holding suspends our judgement. The breakdown isn’t bad or breakdown isn’t good; it’s all of us—and the walls that we assume are barriers also hold. The poem continues:

I heard her say to the fluorescent lighting
Somedays the sky is too bright. And like that
we were her flock in our black coats
and white sweaters, some of us reaching
our wings to her and some of us flying away.

Expectations are subverted. The bright sky isn’t coded for optimism and delight; instead, the artificial florescence assaults our senses. The flock wears black coats and white sweaters, and the birds embody a coherence of extremes with their feather patterns. Last, some of us—our collective, since we, the reader, the speaker, the woman, the magpies, seem to be included in the poem’s use of “we” and “us” throughout—stay, and some fly away. There is no single prescribed action that will solve or fix the breakdown, the too-bright sky.

Agodon writes later in the poem that, “America breaks my heart / some days and some days it breaks itself in two.” Initially I read this poem to mean there’s no one reason the poem’s speaker is heartbroken, and therefore we’re free to grieve without needing to point to any one cause. Further, the speaker’s heartbreak compels her to recognize heartbreak elsewhere. Instead of isolation, judgement, shame—“what I felt was all of us / peeking from her purse.”

However, I’m returning to this moment where America enters, and “it” and “itself.” Is the speaker breaking her own heart? Is America breaking itself? Are readers being given permission to be heartbroken since cause is equated with external factors that exist beyond our control—“some days the sky is too bright”—or am I, as a reader, culpable, an American that participates in the breaking of others? I must ask myself what compels me to evade blame or cause, why rather than frustration or rage, I sense relief when the flock flies in two directions. Moreover, since the poem uses the collective “we,” I’m forced to reckon with the last lines: “…some of us reaching / our wings to her and some of us flying away.” I can read the ending as emphasizing an assumed false binary or as an indictment of supposed neutrality. Perhaps identifying a direct cause is a needed step for repair. Perhaps “some days the sky is too bright” deflects from underlying and pervasive wrongs.

Agodon’s collection comprises seven sections, and the titles allude to an ocean’s architecture. Patterns of waves accompany the reader through the collection’s entire cycle: “Cross Rip,” “Breaksea,” “Scarweather,” “Black Deep,” “Overfalls,” “Shambles,” “Relief.” Like a sea-bound vessel, the collection is neither overwhelmed by or resistant to depth, trauma, suffering—the anxieties and heartbreaks of contemporary American life. There are many kinds of grief here: climate grief and political grief and heart grief, most notably. From “String Theory Relationships:”

                                         … Someone you love will break
your favorite coffee mug and bring you lilacs. And you will be

connected to people who make your eyes roll. You’ll be connected
to others who stand on the bridge and consider jumping off. You’ll try

               to care for them.

Agodon achieves a generous attention to and deep engagement with suffering through the poetic line and sentence structure. There is a subliminal pull against closure as enjambed line breaks surprise and compel the reader. As readers, our footing is never solid—appropriate for a collection immersed in images of shore and water.

For example, in the excerpt above, breakages allow the sentence to hold contradictory emotions. “Someone you love will break” is a foreboding assertion but the initial weight of this statement is undercut by the next line, “your favorite coffee mug and bring you lilacs.” Ah, we realize, though it’s true the people we love are vulnerable, we’re not talking about hurt bodies of those we love just yet; we’re talking about a coffee mug. The anguish we feel upon losing the loved one is subsumed by our annoyance at said loved-one’s carelessness.

A third meaning is also implied by the line, if we divorce it from the initial “Someone you love will break.” Without this beginning, the phrase “your favorite coffee mug and lilacs” soothes and delights. The push and pull between adoration, anguish, and annoyance builds momentum as the poem accumulates meanings. We’re connected to “people who make [our] eyes roll,” and people that “stand on the bridge and consider jumping off.” This is followed by an ominous lineation, a break after the phrase: “You’ll try.” The implication seems to be that we ourselves may be the ones considering jumping. As the sentence continues with the phrase “to care for them,” we again benefit from the accrual of multiple meanings. The speaker’s emphasis isn’t on suicidal ideation; it’s on caring for others and for ourselves.

The poem “Facedown,” in particular, directly confronts failures of care, exploring how notions of resilience can be taken to harmful extremes. Identifying buried trauma, Agodon describes how her pain is contained in “some back bedroom in the house / of my spine.” When the pain isn’t hidden, it is understated. The following excerpt addresses a rape in a flat tone which emphasizes the resulting dissociation felt by the speaker.

I remember the violinist who left me
in high school after a friend slid himself
inside me even though I said no.

The order in which these events are revealed is telling. The speaker does not address the direct impact of the assault, rather she approaches it indirectly through a secondary event (the breakup with the violinist), an event brought to her mind by the “classical music play[ing] in the background.” It’s ironic that the music intended to relax clients, in this instance, is having the opposite effect. As if to account for this failure, Agodon writes, “How can we repair another lifetime? / How can we break away from what we hold?” The strength in the writing arises from Agodon’s refusal to solve or fix suffering that our bodies hold. Some traumas are buried so deep, we can’t turn inward to face them. Some experiences are so extreme we train ourselves to think, for better or worse, it’s a good hurt, so that we may cope with unspeakable pain. When the massage therapist misses the speaker’s point, this emphasizes how the desire to help may further isolate those who “benefit” from our ill-managed attempts at encouragement.

The man working on my back
moves his thumb slowly down the edges
of my vertebrae, says, I know we can heal this.
It doesn’t have to hurt to be good.

The scene, in Agodon’s expert hands, illustrates the untold consequences of trauma. Like the so-called friend who ignores the speakers “no” and robs her of agency over her body, the massage therapist, too, negates what the speaker has shared of her experience. The consequence of her suffering is ongoing separation: she’s unheard, and her connection to her own body is disregarded repeatedly by those attempting repair. The poem, however, is wiser than its characters, as it offers questions, says “me, too.” The poem is facedown with us; the poem contests conventional notions of healing. The poem allows suffering to be seen and heard.

Dialogues with Rising Tides explores a cruel country, a cruel world, cruel relationships and embraces life nonetheless. For me it calls to mind many other poems of resilience—of what Ignatian spirituality would call hard consolation—the kind of suffering that brings one closer to others—if one is willing to fully enter suffering without toxic attempts to distance the self from acute vulnerabilities and the reality of harmful actions and their consequences.

It’s the same vein of resilience found in poems such as “The Thing Is” by Ellen Bass, with its call, “How can a body withstand this,” and its response:

                  …hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Or Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense,” with the oft-quoted “we must risk delight.” Kelli Russell Agodon’s new collection enters into such risk. In poems like “Unsustainable,” or the darkly humorous “Getting An IUD on the Day of 45’s Inauguration,” Agodon is relentless in her examination of the “furnace of this world” (to reference Gilbert again). And still, her collection resists the temptation to quick-fix the brutalities it faces, and this resistance has the potential to take her readers deeper into joy and suffering of lived reality. This deeper look paradoxically offers the possibility of sustaining us in the long struggle to repair what’s broken without being rude to joy.

With regard to Agodon’s use of the first-person plural, there’s a notion of the collective which runs through the book, and subsequently, this review. There are instances throughout the collection where “we” refers to a couple in a relationship or to members of the speaker’s immediate family and family of origin. But most often, the first-person plural seems to stand in for a collective humanity which suffers together. There are instances where the first-person plural masks the particulars of the speaker, as her actions are subsumed by the collective. I’m uncertain if the use of “we” endeavors to address a particular collective identity with regard to race, gender, nationality, or ethnicity. From the text, however, it’s clear that Earth suffers as a result of human behavior, and women, too, have struggled against oppressive systems of harm.

Tracing the use of the first-person pronoun in the poems, “we” is used in many different ways, and my own assumption is that “we” directly addresses the reader. However, I’m left curious about this “we,” and how it gets used, and my own use of the word, too. The risk in poetry is its ability to traverse private and social realms. Using the first-person plural when I write, my interiority enjoins with the readers’. Given the particulars of my identity (a white American mother of three, rural Midwestern contemplative) using “we” could trouble, soothe, or displace my reader. It’s a point of intrigue for me, and something to think about in a collection that uses first-person plural often.

The last line of the book isn’t words at all, simply the dots and dashes of morse code intended to represent the song of the lost sparrow on the pine beam. “Thank You for Saving Me, Someday I’ll Save You Too” is about wanting to save a house on fire, a planet from destruction, a man who falls off a roof. It’s an end that’s both a comfort and a disturbance. In one sense, there’s an access point for absolution. The best we, as readers and writers, can offer one another is the kind of hope that words can never contain:

                                                       …But when the tides
kept rising and the fires burned, we learned the best advice
did not come from God or a guidebook,
the best advice sang hopeful from the lost
sparrow on the pine beam, struggling but able
to fly, wingbeats of Morse code: Follow me into the light
..-. — .-.. .-.. — .– / — . / .. -. – — / – …. . / .-.. .. –. …. –

Hope, in this sense, is dots and dashes, breath, a wingbeat. On the other hand, again, I’m forced to interrogate my own rush to absolution. Why is it a relief to wing into the light rather than to assert agency? My sense is this periodic respite is, as the poem implies, a life-saver. The moment I cease thrashing wildly in the water, I find a raft I can cling to, a place from which I can be resolved and act.

Dialogue with Rising Tides is a book that buoys us day after day, when we, like the cover illustration indicates, feel like a hand reaching out from underneath a dark sea. Drowning, perhaps, but not without a raft—not without a way to keep swimming.

Lauren K. Carlson lives in northern lower Michigan and is the author of a chapbook, Animals I Have Killed. A recent graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, her writing appears in Pleiades: Literature in Context, Amethyst Review, Fatal Flaw, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. For more see More from this author →