Holding On and Letting Go: Rebecca Aronson’s Anchor

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Most of us worry—maybe even obsess, if we’re being honest—about our future as we emerge from a global pandemic and continue to grapple with the threat of climate change. In Anchor, her third poetry collection, Rebecca Aronson explores these issues on both the personal and the universal level as she writes about the death of her parents; her own mortality; and, ultimately, expands her grief to include our dying planet.

The powerful opening poem, “Dear Gravity,” introduces Aronson’s major themes. The 18-line single stanza epistle is one of ten such letters in the book, all addressed “Dear Gravity.” These poems deal with the physical force of gravity and its ability to fell the human body, but in the first line of this first poem, Aronson heightens our awareness of the full effects of gravity by alluding to other shades of meaning. The line “May I call you Grave?” makes explicit the seriousness of the topic and the ultimate result of gravity.

The speaker in the poem then establishes a connection between her own mortality and the natural world: “An old tree falls / after long weakening,”  followed a few lines later by, “At the doctor’s office the nurse says / I’ve grown shorter. Only natural.”  After revealing the effects of gravity on her own body, the speaker describes the diminishment of her parents:

. . . My mother’s hips
are out of plumb; she lists like a sailboat
about to slice sideways into waves and then under.
My father’s head is even with my own, so he’s winning
the shrinking race . . .

The speaker closes by imagining the three of them “disappearing altogether, like a popsicle / that has melted into a stain on someone’s smile.”

The order in which people and objects appear in in this opening poem is significant. Aronson begins with a dying tree, which “keeps falling, rotted core turning to damp dust, / becoming earth,” signaling an overarching principle of death as an inevitable part of nature. The description of the tree also foreshadows later poems that directly address climate change.

She next discusses the effects of gravity on her own body (shorthand for confronting mortality) before describing how gravity is destabilizing her parents. As a parent’s death approaches, one of our most primal instincts is to examine how it affects us. We are forced, maybe for the first time, to admit to ourselves that we will die.

The epistolary poems spaced throughout the collection all share the same title: “Dear Gravity.”  What is gained by including ten different poems with the same name?  Emphasis, obviously, but also a richness and depth in the treatment of the topic. The book’s first epigraph, from Shakespeare’s Richard the Second, asserts there are many shades of grief: 

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;
For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,

In Anchor, gravity is inextricably bound with this grief. Each iteration of “Dear Gravity”  comes at the topic from a slightly different angle, offering multiple perspectives and insights. The speaker addresses gravity directly: She pleads with it; she rails against it; and finally, exhausted, she accepts it, acknowledging that gravity always wins.

One of the most heartbreaking “Dear Gravity” letters comes near the end of the collection. Here, the speaker addresses Gravity intimately, as if confiding in an old friend, describing her father as he nears death: “My father in his bed is a wrinkle among thin blankets.” In language that is tender and sorrowful, the speaker shows us her father’s failing body and his slow drift from consciousness.

A more joyful letter to “Gravity” captures an everyday scene of mother and young son jumping on the trampoline: “We throw ourselves up to come down hard. We soar / until we fall laughing and breathless . . . ” Even here, when death is presumably far off in the future, the speaker doesn’t let us forget that it’s coming. She says, “We fail / to defy you over and over and that is the game,” and later acknowledges, “We will never win the game. We are dying / of laughter . . . ”

Other poems address the speaker’s fears more openly. In “Latch,” prompted by a breast cancer scare, the speaker muses on her complex relationship with her breasts. They are admired by men, they nourish her baby, but mostly she doesn’t think about them. However, the discovery of a lump in her breast brings her to admit, “But now // here I am in this vast new country / where fear lives . . .”

Many pieces deal with the plight of parents. We learn in the second poem, “San Stefano,” that the speaker’s father is dying: “It won’t be the cancer that kills you, the doctor said. And it was and it wasn’t.” Yet after this stark opening line, most of the poem is an evocative, lush description of San Stefano:

What I love is the dark that pools
in a courtyard corner and how those small cars sometimes careen
through the late afternoon hush sending pigeons whirring,
their maraca wings rattling the sky.

At the end of the poem, the speaker returns to her father’s impending death in an almost matter-of-fact way: “I got up the nerve / to ask how you felt about dying / and you told me and we went out for gelato again.” It is as if the speaker wants to focus on these last moments together, rather than death, but the phrase “I got up the nerve” hints at the emotional toll.

The poems about her mother, who suffers from dementia, are heavy with loss.

In “Shell,” Aronson takes us through flickering scenes from a girlhood that the speaker’s mother can’t remember:

Now that the stories
have no before or after, they blaze
brief and bright as flashbulbs
and go dark.

As the speaker grapples with grief for her parents, she also weaves throughout the book a thread of mourning for the planet. Several poems, such as “Bombast,” “Fire Country,” and  “When I am Trying to be Hopeful,” directly confront climate change, and it is a subtle undercurrent running through many other pieces. In “Fire Country,” Aronson locates  personal tragedy in the context of global disaster: “The hills are on fire / and the desert is on fire . . . And my own burning / is so small as to go unnoticed.”

Anchor is both elegy and eulogy, but the collection also pulses with life as the speaker remembers small moments. In “Is That All There Is,” the speaker joyfully recalls her waitressing days, when she “looked good” in her uniform and shares “the secret to living: what is dull can be polished to a hot glow with the right friction.” In “The Dress I Loved,” she describes the effects of a favorite garment:

When I walked the dress to work, the sidewalk sidled alongside
bumping my leg like a needful dog. If I allowed a hand to follow

the long spine of the zipper, my shoulders slid like lake stones,
blades blurring as if rain, as if a forest turning night.

“My Mother Disapproves” is a tumbling, eclectic spill of the many things her mother deems inappropriate, including “tight pants, my uncombed hair, / the fleshy, unbound hours of my every day and night.” These three poems appear in sequence and all are sexually charged to some degree, sweet odes to living and its pleasures in the midst of grief.

Such richness abounds in the content of Anchor that it is easy to overlook Aronson’s technique.  The author writes in free verse and most of these poems are short enough to fit on one page. But they pack a punch. Her skillful use of syntax is worth noting for its freshness. The phrase “When I walked the dress to work” in “The Dress that I Loved” is playful and apt. It animates the dress and the poem. Her originality in ordering her words, for instance, in  phrases like “dip fast the sack of your body” and “before they rot and darken orange” slows us down as readers  and focuses our attention in a slightly new way.

She also has a knack for inserting an image or idea early in a poem that at first glance can seem almost offhand but builds in import to sometimes breath-taking effect. A prime example is “Chrysanthemum,” the only prose poem in the collection. The poem connects a series of images like a chain in a way that at first seems arbitrary: “chrysanthemum,”  “cat ears,” “a petal disintegrating,” “a swirly-glass paperweight.” She compares many things to petals and somehow at the end of the poem brings it all together in a line that adds up to much more than the sum of the poem’s parts: “the petal of your life which is brief, which is delicate and weightier than you know.”

For readers unfamiliar with Aronson’s poetry, Anchor is a beautiful introduction. Her second collection, Ghost Child of the Atalanta Bloom, is also excellent. However, this third book displays a stronger thematic cohesiveness, making the individual poems resonate more fully.

The book’s title, Anchor, adds to that resonance, as it helps pinpoint our relationship to gravity. In “Dear Gravity,” [Do you imagine he is trying to escape you?] the speaker describes her father’s struggles, telling gravity, “I know you are trying to make an anchor, / having filled his legs with fluid until they nearly burst.” She adds near the end of the poem, “You want him all to yourself / but he is half floating, half falling stretched between realms.” Gravity is what tethers us to the earth and to those we love, but it is also what we are constantly trying to escape. Anchor is about both these states—the holding on and the letting go—and the tension between them.

The letting go, the escape from gravity through death, is described beautifully with bird imagery and references to flight and floating. The speaker declares, “Dear Gravity, “My bones are hollow. I dream of flight.” In “Underneath,” Aronson writes, “It appears / I’m tethered,” but adds “don’t believe what you see . . . I am winged . . .”

In “Aviary,” which describes the moments just after her father has died, Aronson weaves together two scenes: one in which she and mother are in the hospital room “when his breathing stopped” and a second from the speaker’s memory of watching hummingbirds with her parents the year before. She remembers “small wings shimmering around us” and also recalls, “The hummingbirds, alerted by a signal / we couldn’t know ceased their whirring and were gone.”

Anchor’s poems build to a crescendo of grief, washing over us like waves, waves that come crashing down with the pull of gravity, but also waves of release and acceptance. The poet brings these elements together  near the end of the book in  “Star Dust”:

Grief is in you from the start and in you at the end
and though sometimes your days are flooded with it,

and sometimes your days are clear, we are made of it
as much as we are made of the ruins

of the first flaming star, whose far flung dust still spins
us into being.

And really, what more could we ask of life than that? To be star dust.

 

 

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Janice Northerns is the author of Some Electric Hum (Lamar University Literary Press, 2020), winner of the Byron Caldwell Smith Book Award from the University of Kansas, the Nelson Poetry Book Award, and a WILLA Literary Award Finalist in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in many journals, including Ploughshares, The Laurel Review, and Southwestern American Literature. She lives in southwest Kansas. More from this author →