Poetry Sunday: Margaret Stawowy

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s offering is from Margaret Stawowy’s debut collection, Keeper of the Pond. Stawowy is a librarian and obviously a great reader; her writing is packed with interesting allusions to literature and art, and there is something for every taste in this wonderful, quirky book. I agree with what was said by poet Thomas Centolella:

Margaret Stawowy’s new collection could just as well have been called Lost and Found. These meditations consider a tenuous world, vanished or fated to vanish, as though to reclaim it, to keep it from absolute annihilation. A number of these poems are gorgeous conceits, sometimes playful, sometimes painful, sometimes perplexing, but almost always executed with a sure hand and a cool eye. Stawowy guides us through the undersides of childhood and memory and dread as “someone in love / with anomaly,” who is also “always grateful / for grace”—a welcome combination for the lucky reader. — Thomas Centolella, Dorset Prize winner and author of Almost Human

Stawowy’s poetry is accessible without being shallow and facile, and reading her work reminds me again of what W.H. Auden said of poetry—that it is the clear expression of mixed and complicated feelings. With this in mind, let’s turn to today’s poems.

“My Father-in-Law Returns from the Dead” is free verse organized into one stanza of 16 lines and seems to recount a dream in which the poet’s father-in-law visits the speaker, and in a series of surreal and surprising twists, congregates with other dead relatives and ancestors before transforming into a “lap dog / for the amusement of the children.” The most dramatic turn happens in the last three lines where the poem moves from humor and whimsy into a more serious place, with the father-in law injured (“limped”) and marooned (“There were no taxis” back “to the city / of the dead”), and the speaker coming to the realization that “I knew then how much I misunderstood him.” I can’t leave this poem without mentioning how much I love that image of the father-in-law’s hair, “vigorous as crabgrass.” The Poet’s Note opens another window onto this poem, explaining its darker elements and showing us again the way poetry can bring powerful insights, and even healing, into our relationships with others.

“Villanelle for a Broken Washing Machine” makes smart use of the villanelle, harnessing the form’s repetitive quality to enact the cycles of a washing machine and the feeling of helpless claustrophobia we get when we find our lives ruled and complicated by the technology designed to make things easier. I have often wondered if all those wonderful labor-saving housekeeping appliances devices do not, in the end, consume more time than they save. In my view, they make more work by raising standards of cleanliness to impossible levels and by the time they demand to maintain them. “Villanelle for a Broken Washing Machine” seems to agree. Notice the way vivid verbs and verb forms make everyday objects come alive in these lines: a personified knife has a “clucking tongue” and the washer “sparked and shorted.”

For a detailed discussion of and rubric for the villanelle form, see my previous column featuring Caitlin Doyle’s poems. This poem follows the form but bends the rule that the second lines of each stanza should adhere to the same end rhyme, a variation on the form that serves the poem by mimicking the way the washer is not performing perfectly. As is often the case in Stawowy’s poems, humor is offset by darker elements such as the literal darkness outside that reflects the way minor appliance breakdowns can wreak havoc in a home, especially one without ready disposable income for repairs. Notice how just two words—“smug workmen”—captures that terrible feeling of incompetence and frustration occasioned by technology breakdowns, an example of Stawowy using poetic compression to pack a world into a small space. And that “house where disorder adhered / no matter how much cleaning or dusting done”—hey, wait a minute, that’s my house! I love poems like this one that feel like windows onto my own life.

“How to Die” is emblematic of Stawowy’s poems in the way it combines humor with the macabre and uses a familiar, quotidian thing like a common childhood game to say something darker and deeper about human experience. This is especially evident in the poem’s last two lines, always good for a laugh and a sharp exhale of breath when Stawowy reads them aloud, as in a recent reading at my favorite local bookstore, Rebound Books. The poem is free verse organized into five quatrains of mostly three- and four-beat lines whose meter creates a bit of a rollicking effect. Through the lens of “How to Die,” we come to see the game of “playing dead” afresh, and something we have come to accept as every day and normal becomes, as Coleridge says, “rich and strange.” I love the way lines like “Limbs should flop when shook” can be funny—and horrible—at the same time. And as in all Stawowy’s poems, the images and diction used to execute them are vivid, surprising, and spot-on, as in “You will still need sips of air in the afterlife”— a great line in any context, but here in a poem about children playing a game (I thought of sippee cups), it just sings.

These three poems are a good representative sample of Keeper of the Pond, which includes work in free verse like “My Father-in-Law Returns from the Dead” as well as forms like “Villanelle for a Broken Washing Machine” and the wry, ouchily-witty “Sonnet to my Appendix.” You will also find powerful poems of witness like “Meltdown” (for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster) and “Ex-Cons at the Bus Station” balanced by lighter and more whimsical pieces such as “Today, All Men Loved Me” and “letter to me at 22.” Add to that poems about the author’s intriguing and complex ancestry and others drawing on surrealism like “On the Subway with Dali” and you’ll get an idea of the depth and breadth of what Keeper of the Pond has to offer its readers.

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  • Kati Short May 27, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    Thank you again for a lovely group of poems. I missed Ms. Foust’s commentary, but the poet’s notes covered much of the same subjects as Ms. Foust. What a joy for a Sunday morning. I can’t believe I open this email and poem of the day before anything else. Thank you.