V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Maggie Anderson's Selected Poetry





Anderson is ideally situated as an observer of her own milieu:  she is both
an outsider and an insider, and she has formal training as a counselor
and participant observer.  Carefully recorded detail marks her poems·

Maggie Anderson is a poet, editor, teacher, and administrator.  This is her fourth book of poetry, she has edited anthologies, she teaches poetry writing as well as courses which blend cultural studies with writing and literature study, focusing on the Appalachian region and on working-class writing, and she directs the Wick Poetry Program at Kent State.  Anderson's poetry practice balances creative pursuits with professorial, editorial, and administrative modes or approaches to writing.
    Anderson's educational background and general upbringing also contextualizes her writing.  She was born and raised in New York City.  Both parents were teachers; her mother was a political scientist.  When she was thirteen, she moved with her father or parents to West Virginia, where her father had been raised.  Her mother died young, perhaps around the time of the move.

        Here is a letter to my mother in the hospital.
        I was eight years old and didn't know she
        was dying.  I drew a picture for her of my parakeet.
                    ["These Greens"]

    Anderson stayed in West Virginia for her education, completing two master's degrees, one in social work, at West Virginia.  In her early pursuit of poetry, Anderson worked teaching writing as a social worker in Appalachia in the 1970's, in coal country just after the oil embargo and Vietnam.  Her Aunt Nita had worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression, as Walker Evans did, as Anderson mentions in a series of poems from an earlier book included in this collection.  She then seems to have worked as a poet in the schools in Western Pennsylvania around the time the steel industry was consolidating.

        ... one rainy April afternoon,
        exhausted from teaching six classes
        of junior high school students,
        I sat in my car at the top of a steel hill
        in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and stared
        for a long time at the closed mill.
                     ["Closed Mill"]

    In this poem, she goes on to describe the way in which social conditions affect her students.  Anderson is ideally situated as an observer of her own milieu:  she is both an outsider and an insider, and she has formal training as a counselor and participant observer.  Carefully recorded detail marks her poems:

        In Spanishburg there are boys in tight jeans,
        mud on their cowboy boots and they wear huge hats
        with feathers, skunk feathers they tell me.
                    ["Spitting the Leaves"]

Especially fine natural detail achieves much of Anderson's lyricism:

        Chamomile and dill still volunteer
        among the wild mullein and cinquefoil.
                    ["Abandoned Farm, Western Pennsylvania"]

    A deep and metapoetical modesty divides the narrator and the poet from the story and the poem.  "Closed Mill," quoted above, begins with a different type of closure, the narrator's: "I'm not going to tell you everything, / like where I live and who I live with."
    The new poems in this volume are even more direct, and they have more personal detail than Anderson's older work.  In the quote of "These Greens," the line break between her mother and her mother's fate, "she / was dying," demonstrates power and control Anderson's gained over her early flat line breaks, and the slight grammatical reversal, "I drew a picture for her of my parakeet" rather than "I drew a picture of my parakeet for her," is an incredibly expressive hitch.  Overall, however, it is amazing how little personal detail and personal narrative these poems narrated in the first person contain.
    The book as a whole "opens," as it is chronological, and readers read Anderson relaxing into her craft.  The title, Windfall, is apt.  It is a homely kenning which has evolved two colloquial meanings:  fallen fruit, sometimes free to the harvesters, and any unexpected boon.

*     *     *

There are fashions in poetry, as in criticism, and Anderson's respectful handling of her subject matter or world carries her through some, but not all, of these style changes.  She felt it necessary to change the word "Eskimo" to "Inuit" in a poem title, now that "Inuit" is the politic usage.  Only fifteen years ago, to use family photographs or "famous" photographs as a poem topic was a common poetry workshop assignment.  Maggie Anderson's series about Walker Evans photographs of West Virginia are a bit different:  the poems were published in book form at about that time and they are familiar photographs taken in an area where Anderson's family lived.  It is interesting to read the ways in which Anderson uses the distance of photography's and Evans' framing to negotiate her own separation from her family subject matter.
    She uses Evans' titles as the titles of her poems.  While titled in the 1930's, the titles are very much like the splendidly over-specific titles popular in the 80's.  However, the intervening concentration on similar topoi has placed the mechanics of these poems in relief for readers now.  In "House and Graveyard, Rowlesburg, West Virginia, 1935" she begins, "I can't look long at this picture," but then describes both the picture and what is not in the picture in detail.  She begins her conclusion, "It's a good photograph, but Walker Evans / didn't know my family, nor the distance / his careful composition makes me feel now."  It is a criticism of Evans which Anderson is not alone in making, but more commonly made of his photographs published in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
    Anderson's wonderful depiction of a snarling girl and phrasing of the thoughts she ascribes to the figure in "Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia, 1935" bring her alive and identify the narrator with the figure, but the balance against description and narration would be adjusted tonally more carefully now.  Anderson tends to "tip" poems in the first lines, then end with a recap.  "Mining Camp Residents, West Virginia, 1935" begins, "They had to seize something in the face of the camera," which is a fine line.  A description of the "seizing" and a negotiation with the Evans she summons in all three of these poems follows.  But the recap, "... And they did what he said," shuts the poem down.
    "Caving," dedicated to William Matthews, and "Long Story," at the center of this volume, are narratives having to do with caves or mining, where the physical and poem structure, poem process and poetic event, all have a coherent and fecund shape.  "Caving" is nominally about spelunking.  "Long Story" metaphorically also takes on narrative and mining, coal mountains (usually glass mountains in fairy tales) and death, but powerfully turns these considerations into an image of the relationship of work to life and story to love.  Another of Anderson's most moving poems is "Heart Fire," which compares a person, rather than a process or event, to the world of Anderson's perception.  The more disjunctive "Daphne" also absorbs a figure into the landscape.
    The new poems at the end of the volume continue to attempt to negotiate the tides of fashion.  Anderson's use of italic is more widespread, as it is everywhere in poetry now, especially after the advent of word processing, but her italic doesn't represent a use of multiple voice as effective as her earlier photograph poems.  The new poems do show an increased facility and a move by Anderson from the periphery into the center of the poems, which is psychologically healthy, after all.  In "Self-Portrait" she begins, "I was far outside the frame," and turns, "Until now / when I come into the picture."  Her knife poems center around a primal scene, and a black dog ÷ a figure of grief, worry, and obsession in an early poem ÷ returns in a series.  Perhaps it is unfair to compare these poems with animal poems like Ted Hughes' Crow poems, as they don't have the same gravitas.  However, a mythical reading, and rereading of the older poems, is supportable, as Anderson's father and mother and her larger family history are important to understanding the sources of Anderson's poetry.

Anderson, Maggie. Windfall:  New and Selected Poems.  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.  ISBN: 0-822-95719-1  $12.95

© by Catherine Daly


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