Poetry for Southern California
AT THE DOOR:
Poems about Approaching the Other
Edited by Lisa Sisler and Lea C. Deschenes
Birch Bench Press (www.writebloody.com)
In their introduction, Lea Deschenes and Lisa Sisler, the editors of this anthology, acknowledge the ambiguity of their subject matter. “This ambiguity and unwieldiness,” they write, “is what drew us to this concept as anthology subject—it requires each poet to wrestle with its definition for themselves.”
The definitions of “the other” the various poets come up with are certainly wide and varied. There are the obvious ones: the stranger, the other nationality, color, religion, etc. There are also God, ghosts and death. But the concept is also widened to include both a horse and a rock, as well as broad concepts such as hatred and anything unknown.
This very ambiguity makes it a perfect topic for poetic exploration, for most poetry is, at its base, not only ambiguous, but concerned with ambiguity itself. I find one of the strengths of poetry, as opposed to prose, is the very degree to which it is open to interpretation. Because of its open-ended nature, poetry can often be a tool to understand the mysteries of the world. “The other” is, by definition, something we don’t understand. Throughout this collection, the poems nonetheless struggle to understand it.
There is a certain circularity to the ambiguity in this anthology. The anthology is, as a whole, an attempt to define “the other.” Every poem, by its inclusion, helps to build that definition. Actually, “define” may be too specific a word; the anthology attempts to create a picture of “the other” by corralling a variety of definitions.
At the same time, the reader’s interpretation of any given poem is colored by its very inclusion. I found myself repeatedly trying to figure out, “Okay, how does this poem fit into the theme? What, exactly, is ‘the other’ in this poem?” There are poems I might not have considered to be about “the other” except for the fact I read them here. This turns out to be a strength of the collection, for it forces the reader to think deeper about the poetry included and the overall theme.
Most of the poems do have a clear notion of what they consider “the other.” But in some of them, the very concept becomes ambiguous. “Postulates, Examples & Appendices” by Sam Cha concerns several overheard conversations, but in the end it remains open whether the eavesdropper or the eavesdroppee constitutes “the other” (or perhaps both do). Likewise, P. D. Goodwin’s “In Search of Fresh Eggs” describes an encounter between the poet and “a Mennonite/ an archaic artifact,” and makes it clear that each character is, and remains, “the other”: “We circled around each other/ eyed each other/ attracted and repelled.”
There is another way in which poetry, or, more broadly, all writing, plays off the theme of the anthology. Several of the poems make the claim that “the other” is a result of language itself. In “Creation” Nils Peterson writes, “I will call that/ not-me-ness Soul, thought God, for the first time/ needing a name.” And MaryLisa DeDomenicis’s “Maybe You Are Not You” states:
To rename bird as sky and say
the sky nests in the trees.
To see it that way.
Or to rename bird as tree and say
pieces of the tree have taken flight.
The tree is flying. The sky assembles
Juncture blurred by words–
where do the birds go when the word
for bird is moved.
Despite the variety of approaches and interpretations of “the other,” one recurrent theme does emerge – the attempt to understand “the other.” Almost all of the poems reach toward that understanding, or at least some accommodation with “the other.” This can be both a weakness and strength for the book.
On the one hand, it actually, to a degree, limits our understanding of “the other,” or at least of the role it plays in human society. Not to be too glib about it, but where are the poems by the racists? Or, at least, from those who fear “the other,” flee from it, have no wish to understand it. The negative influence of this fear on society is examined here, but only externally; none of the poets really try to get inside the fear. Because of this, it feels like a piece of the puzzle is missing, like there is a hole at the center of the collection.
On the other hand, this focus on attempting to understand does provide the book with a coherent message, even a moral to the story.
I cannot know how much this is a conscious decision on the part of the editors, and how much it is the result of the attitudes of the poets who submitted. Perhaps it is inherent in the nature of poetry, which (as I have said) is often an attempt to understand. Perhaps it is difficult, if not impossible, to write a poem, or at least a good poem, about “the other” without some attempt to understand it.
Or perhaps it was a conscious decision on the part of the editors. The anthology is subtitled “Poems about approaching the other” after all. Maybe they did want to communicate the message that we can, and should, attempt to understand that which is different from us.
Whichever is the cause, the result is that Knocking At The Door conveys a moral message, without preaching. In the tradition of the best poetry, the message comes through not on the surface, but in the interpretation of the poetry.
Finally, independent of messages and interpretations, Knocking At The Door is a fine collection of quality poetry. Among my favorites are “As Slow As Possible” by Tony Brown; “For the Men Who Call the Rape Crisis Hotline and Masturbate,” Corrina Bain; “Carefully Tonight,” Janet Barry; “Sitting in My Bathtub with a Razor Blade,” Allene Rasmussen Nichols; and “Phyllis Fromme,” Steven Riel. And these are only my absolute favorites. I’m sure every reader will fine many of their own. The poetry is that good.
Knocking at the Door provides the two things a great poetry anthology should: great poems, and food for thought.
— G. Murray Thomas