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Molly Fisk: Death, Herself

UNDRESS, SHE SAID by Doug Anderson,

Four Way Books, Tribeca

2022, 102 pages, $17.95



            You might think, opening Doug Anderson’s fourth poetry collection Undress, She Said, that a man wrote this book — the potentially flirtatious title, the table of contents with its Plague and Death and War. There are two rusting pick-ups on the black-and-white cover. 

            A man did write this book and it’s imbued with masculinity, but stock gender assumptions about its focus and trajectory would be misplaced. These are poems about human compassion: its presence and absence, its value, its price. Only a person who’s lived a long time and faced himself and the world with a clear eye could have written them. 

            “I want back the things between the things/I chose to see,” says Anderson in “Invocation,” a poem from the book’s long first section, Love In Plague Time, which considers death as idea, as future, and personified most of the time as a woman. The poet’s awareness that he missed things reverberates in many of us, as does the enormity of what he didn’t miss. “My friend, I need help with dying./I have a life that’s like/an oversized storage locker./A heaven and a nightmare of memory.”

            The poet’s body — naturally, in its late 70s — is falling apart: “my real heart, failing like all the other muscles, has acquired a cardiologist.” In “All Over Town,” as he showers and thinks of everyone else showering, Anderson lists from top to bottom the wounds and scars, the burns, torn ligaments, tattoos covering bullet traces, feet “almost crushed now/ under the weight of a life.” There is a straightforwardness to the litany, a candid plain speech that holds large emotions in beautiful balance. This has always been one of Anderson’s strengths: writing about traumatic events — his time as a medic in Viet Nam among them — without being melodramatic. It’s easy to screw this up, to slide into sentimentality or language so heightened it distracts us from the importance of what’s being said. 

            In “The Good Doctor,“ a professional describes the speaker/poet as having a “flattened affect.” In trauma and recovery circles, this means a person who can enumerate horrors as if from a great distance, without seeming to be horrified. The speaker/poet retorts: “I hand this over to you./ I’ve done my sobbing; now it’s yours.” Anderson hands his readers some horrors, but so much more, including the ordinary, everyday disasters of loving and aging.

            In the poem “My Heart,” Anderson contrasts his real heart with mentions of the word “heart” in a manuscript, possibly this one. A friend objects to how many times he says it, so he rifles through and takes the word out sometimes, finds synonyms. But the book’s big heart beats loudly nonetheless, describing the unwavering longing, losses, astonishment, relish, and regrets of love around a core of primal desire: metaphor for living, metaphor for not dying yet.

            The “She” of the book’s title is flirting, I think, but she is Death, so the statement covers sex, dying, vulnerability, anything else a reader wants to infer. She appears driving a sports car, wearing lilac perfume and a turtleneck over her tattoos, offering a breast, unfastening the sections of an orange, not interested in getting out of bed. She’s portrayed as a lover, of course, but also a conspirator, a pal, and we understand she has the power, she’ll have the last word. One of the things I liked best in the book was this on-going relationship — how the speaker knows what’s coming and isn’t resisting, and Death knows what’s coming but is not in a hurry, has her eye on some inner timing we can’t see, does not insist.

            The book is divided into a long section and three shorter ones. In The War Doesn’t End, his second, Anderson’s poems move from death the idea to death as reality — it’s literal, it’s memory. In “Splibs and Chucks“ he makes a soldier bleeding out less horrific by his specificity, checking the black man’s lower lip for cyanosis. Close practical details are another tool for writing effectively about trauma, bringing overwhelming chaos down to a small element a reader can understand. They also serve to reinforce our trust in the writer: we never doubt he was there. This bond of revelation and trust strengthens the book and amplifies it in ways many current poetry collections cannot match.

            Anderson made an interesting choice in devoting the two final sections to homage (III. Homage), and mythology (IV. Mythologies). Poets do weave gratitude and connections to their teachers into poems, explaining their lineage, responding to forebears. I don’t know that a younger poet would have done this so overtly, and it was moving to read the poems, though some of the references were unfamiliar to me. There’s a little of the flavor here that we often find in literature by and about our elders: near the end they are working to make sense of and make peace with life, and sometimes still arguing with it. 

            A scholar’s knowledge and understanding, as well as long experience, is the ground from which these poems emerge. To my ear, a Buddhist thoughtfulness runs through the collection, even while Biblical language, rhythms, and maybe a long childhood wrestling run beside it. “The Bible loves the body,” Anderson says in “Exegesis of the Unspoken,” and “I know Jesus had a penis.” Weaving the poems to Li Po and Po Chui with those referencing Sappho, James Tate, John Ashbery, Mahmoud Darwish, and more, and then bringing in Circe, Adam, Aphrodite, Theseus, and other figures from the Mythologies section felt like both respect and camaraderie: an honoring of the dead and perhaps an expectation or hope of being able to mingle with them in the hereafter. Jack Gilbert and Wordsworth are there, too, and Cyclops. Even Ho Chi Minh. 

            Undress, She Said is rich and complicated, and worth your attention. It’s a view of one life and one era, but calls forth every era, all the wars, all the love in history. “Death is finally kind,” writes Anderson in “Homage to Po-Chui.” “There is nothing to fear, says the snow.”

Copyright 2023 Molly Fisk

Molly Fisk’s many books include Everything But the Kitchen Skunk: Ongoing Observations from a Working Poet (Story Street Press, 2022). She lives in Nevada County, California.

10 comments on “Molly Fisk: Death, Herself

  1. Lisa Zimmerman
    March 3, 2023

    Such a thoughtful review. Now I need the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loranneke
    March 3, 2023

    Such a deeply intelligent review!


  3. Robbi Nester
    March 3, 2023

    Anderson is a fine poet, and this review does justice to his work.


  4. Barbara Hamby
    March 3, 2023

    Thanks, Molly. Can’t wait to read this. I love Doug’s work.


  5. Rich Clay
    March 3, 2023

    Excellent portrayal! I have this book.


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This entry was posted on March 3, 2023 by in Literary Criticism and Reviews, Most Popular, Poetry, spirituality.

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