THESE ARE SOME ALARMING DAYS. The West Coast is dry as a bone, ISIS is beheading people right and left, polar ice caps are melting, and the police are shooting unarmed black and brown people at a dizzying rate. There is a permanent red banner across our screens crying out “breaking news,” and none of it is good. It is hard not to think we’re on a trip to hell in a hand basket, and it makes me wonder about the efficacy of the whole poetic enterprise. It triggers my latent apocalyptic anxiety and makes me distinctly bad company in rooms where the music is loud and the banter is witty.
Yes, I am a believer in the power of poetry to provide succor and solace (and I’m not alone — I recently heard that the six months after 9/11 were a kind of golden age in which Americans turned to poems over television). When times have been tough, I’ve certainly slunk back to those who raised me — Elizabeth Bishop and Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and Czeslaw Milosz. These days, I am apt to reach for Natasha Trethewey or C.D. Wright, Anne Carson or Vénus Khoury-Ghata.
Truth be told, even in the best of times, I’ve never been especially sweet on slice-of-life poems, particularly ones with a smarty pants edge. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the skill they require, they’re just not what I turn to at 3 a.m. And to continue with the truth-telling, I hadn’t read that much of Amy Gerstler’s work before now. The poems I had run across were charming and smart and emotionally targeted. They brought to mind something I heard Mark Doty say when he read in Portland a few weeks ago: “People — to paraphrase Auden — say that poems do nothing. Actually they do something. They make people go ahhh …” If asked at gunpoint what I knew about the poems of Amy Gerstler, I would have said: Single subject, clever, emotionally resonant in a top-of-the-head sort of way. They’re the kind of poems that Ellen DeGeneres would write if she were to write poems: Witty, irreverent, self-deprecating — fundamentally kind. But not the poems I would take to a desert island.
However, after a few readings, Scattered at Sea got under my skin in ways that I did not expect. Though Gerstler’s poems rely heavily on a contemporary idiom, they do not do what so much similarly situated work tends to do — blow apart in MTV jump cuts. They don’t drive the car over the cliff into shatters and fragmentation. Rather, the poems in Scattered at Sea have a heart of sense-making. And that impulse toward gathering meaning from the shards of chaos is sorely needed in this particular poetic and political moment. Consider, for instance, “Rumbles from a Minor Deity” — which opens with the line “Thanks for the badass offering!” — and its compassion for and celebration of the small (and perhaps ultimately pathetic) gestures of human devotion:
Every tinfoil-and-twine shrine hidden in some garage,
Every duct taped shoebox of relics under a bed,
Every self-sprung temple circumscribed by sublime trees
And screeching monkeys: all these are dear to me.
But Gerstler doesn’t let us linger there, in relative comfort. No. She reminds us of the struggle to be human in a capricious world:
As we wrap up this chat, I want you to know:
I’m only a couple of days of abject praying away …
Gerstler is at her best when she aims her sharp tongue and keen sense of the absurd at the various and ingenious doomed strategies that humans use to order themselves. Two of the most humanely skewering poems are “Stoics” and “Early Greek Philosophy.” In both, Gerstler shows tremendous tenderness toward the impulse for meaning in the knowledge of death. She reveals our striving as not just distracted and pointless but rather as noble and dear in its pointless distractedness. “Early Greek Philosophy” ends here:
On sorting the jumble of events into gorgeous order
Getting a lot of the science right
While still pawing through entrails to divine the future
A vigorous lot of intellectual adventurers
Whose mission was to explain the universe
Wild minds we have only in fragments
Because whether papyrus scraps, birch bark
Or this mortal coil
Dammit, matter just doesn’t last
In the midst of the silliness of the human enterprise, Gerstler looks in on the dead and the dying, as well as those who are losing their senses (“Marc’s mind’s now a suitcase packed by a clown”). She does not linger in the howling moments of new loss, but rather scrubs at the patina of quieter, more persistent grief. In the poem “The Suicide’s Wife,” she writes:
six weeks later she looks great
thin and translucent
a statue of justice sans blindfold
she wears beautiful blouses now
peach, gold, seedling green
has never been better
lushness nips at the heels
This isn’t to say that the book does not occasionally veer off into the smart-alecky. In fact, Gerstler recognizes and calls out those impulses. As she says about herself in her closing poem, “Gratitude Prayer”: “You made me / The cracked thing I am! Gave me mockery / For a middle name!” The wise-cracking and side-talk is most distracting in the second section of the book, “Womanishness,” which is weighted down with poems like “Cursing of the Party Responsible for her Suffering” and “Self Portrait as a Cave Lady.” As entertaining as these poems are (“May he choke as though he had swallowed a pitchfork”), they do not offer the same blend of wit and emotional intelligence that infuses much of the rest of the book.
Even so, and to my surprise, henceforth some of my 3 a.m. fussing time will be taken up with puzzling over the idea of “scattering,” which is invoked in the title and is the book’s major preoccupation. It opens with an epigraph from Lao Tzu: “He who obtains has little. He who scatters has much.” And the title itself comes from the second line of the final poem, “Gratitude Prayer”:
Thanks for the rickety body, which lends us form!
And for what we believe can’t be scattered at sea.
There is something fearsome and imminent about scattering. I suppose Lao Tzu must have been warning us away from grasping and clinging and goading us toward generosity. That seems benign enough, however difficult it is to execute. Of course, there is also the scattering of ashes, but that is the least of it really. Gerstler offers us a much more complex and troubling version of scattering. She sniffs out the scattered leavings of the dead in our daily lives in “Dear Nation of My Dead”:
yeah, I’m mad. Crushed. Sniveling.
Conscripted by myth, you’re smug triumphant.
Nature dutifully scatters your essences,
dramatic, illegible. So what’s a sentient
being to do, marooned on this barstool,
but slurp, savor, summon, and pray, as I
sop up this gravy with hunks of warm sourdough
torn from this morning’s glowing loaf?
But she also sidles up to something more ominous and — dare I say it? — existential. Gerstler walks right up to the cliff where our sense of “what is” breaks down. In gently mocking the absurdity of our struggling and striving, in calling out the “wild minds we have only in fragments,” she teeters near one of our great cultural pathologies, that our attention is pulled in so many directions — that we are so distracted from that which both matters and threatens — we are literally scattering ourselves alive.
At the risk of getting too grandiose, I can’t help but be reminded of Yeats’s great poem of impending war, “The Second Coming.” In that epic foreboding, it is the scattering that sets doom in motion rather than the other way around:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Scattered at Sea puts a finger on that center that cannot hold, on the forces that rip us apart while the householders among us — Amy Gerstler and myself included — frantically try to reinforce the seams.
The aspirations of this book are not monumental. But neither are they over-wrought. The anxieties are mostly personal and the solaces are mostly domestic. I — deep in my apocalyptic bunker — was looking for the silver bullet, for the magic pill, for the grand bargain. I was looking for something bigger than Scattered at Sea is prepared to wrestle. But maybe that is exactly the type of meta-grandiosity that Gerstler exposes as folly. Maybe quiet grief and small comforts are the best medicine poems have to offer. Perhaps if we take our eyes off the screens that breathlessly predict catastrophe and follow Amy Gerstler’s lead in looking closely — and mirthfully — at the things and people who share our lives, that is where respite lies even in the full knowledge that any respite is incomplete and temporary. Maybe — as my teenage daughters like to say — I should just get over myself. Maybe I should take to heart the message of the quotidian god that appears in “Kitchen Annunciation”:
Brute beast led by sensuality
And yearning, weak as an earthworm,
Don’t shun my light. Correct your
Affections. Revel while you’re flesh.