People assume that poetry is autobiographical. I am often asked about the back story for my poems or readers just assume it is about me. Even when the poem is clearly written in the voice of a woman or someone that I am not, instead of considering that it may be a work of fiction, listeners are usually just confused.
Perhaps this assumption is understandable. Poetry may be the most intimate of all the fine arts. If a poet does his or her work well, readers connect the poem to their own experience in a profound way. This connection comes from recognizing one's own experience in the observations of another. So whether a poem is “true” or not, it is inevitable that something of the character of the poet is revealed, especially when her work is assembled in a manuscript.
Hardly surprising then, that The Gatherer (Turning Point $15.84), a new book of poems by my dear friend and colleague, Judy Bowles, should be suffused with graciousness, hospitality, and a light of wisdom that comes from having been blessed with life’s fullest measure.
I met Judy in 2010 when we both signed up for a workshop at the Bethesda Writer’s Center with about 10 other poets. The workshop was convened and taught by American University professor David Keplinger, who himself is a master poet and writer.
At the end of that semester, everyone wanted to continue to work together but it was too late to register a new class with the Writer’s Center. Judy offered to host the next 8 sessions at her home in nearby Chevy Chase.
Four years later, this same group is still meeting at the home of Judy and her indulgent husband Tom, who builds fires for us in winter and joins us for backyard pot luck suppers in the spring. Judy is a gracious and generous host. That is reflected in her collection.
The Gatherers is a triumph. The poems are like old friends; they've changed a bit since I last saw them but they have grown wiser and more cherished with time.
And then there is the effect of seeing them assembled together as a finished piece of work.
The poems are laid out like a journey from childhood to middle age. Judy reflects on being a child, a parent, and finally and perhaps most poignantly, on her own death. I had a deep sense of my own mortality when reading a poem told in the voice of a grave digger in “Ground Hog.”
“…You’d be impressed
to see me digging a grave, how deep, square
perfect I make it. A human body is going there.
When it’s my turn, somebody just like me
will ready the earth where I’ll be lowered…”
In another, about the loss of her mother, Judy acknowledges that those most important to us remain with us in a way that transcends death. Years after those we love are gone, we still feel their caress.
“The sky there was wide, sharp,
attentive, and as if from that wild
and very blue place
came a soft little gesture
that suited my hand.”
Other poems draw from the time spent in her garden and demonstrate a reverence for the flora and fauna of the natural world while acknowledging that we are sometimes uneasy about our place in it.
Here is one of Judy’s poems in its entirety that she has kindly given me permission to post here. It is a poem of extraordinary attention. “Listen, I say to myself” she writes in the last line.
For my daughters
Thoughts without words this seafront morning
crowd the day like an overgrown meadow
alive with color, with swaying, with sound.
Dense heaping clouds bury the sun
holding its gold in their fat bulging shapes.
silver slips through and glimmers the water
the waving, the white birds and sand.
Smeared light like this makes a case for the heart
to open its fist and receive
like they do, the dolphins, now lifting before me
wheels turning their rhythm of breath.
They send and receive in equal measure.
Sound is their light that beams
through the water, meets matter that’s dense,
copies it back to the brain.
Such a smooth glitter of souls
inhabit this world, theirs and mine.
Listen, I say to myself.