“…to be in debt is to remain awake.”
This last line of Sophie Cabot Black’s poem “Somewhere in New Jersey is the Center” has been rattling inside me since I read it. If you are initially drawn to the poem—as I was—because it has New Jersey in the title, it’s no surprise that an interstate is mentioned early on. However, the predictable images end there as the poem addresses the economic downturn of 2008 by traveling through the servers and equipment housed in New Jersey that run the stock exchange. It is hard to make poetry of such things–to inhabit the abstract landscape and language of the financial system and still create visceral, emotional worlds; many poems in her most recent book The Exchange do just that.
Black’s childhood in rural New England is also prominent in her poems—the language of nature as the setting for internal human landscapes. The metaphors are surprising and there is always something of that “debt” in the poems—some vacancy that the reader must inhabit in order to complete the poems. For example, solitude and loneliness figure strongly in “The Lake,” which begins: “Day and night, the lake dreams of sky. / A privacy as old as the mountains / And her up there, stuck among peaks….”
Later we see the lake as needful: “…If only a hand / would tremble along her cheek, would disturb.” What it would disturb, we’re not exactly told. And that is what makes Black’s poems so satisfying as a reader. They edge towards aphorism, but then take a turn which keeps us off-balance and unsettled.
Black addresses the illness and death of a loved one in poems with spare and technical titles such as “Diagnosis,” “Biopsy” and “Chemotherapy.” The titles themselves act as an announcement, a declaration of the everydayness of this human experience, which in itself is jarring. As I read the titles, before even reading the first line of the poems, I immediately began to bring my own experiences into my body and into the poems. The simplicity of these titles is another kind of “debt.” While the poems share a particular and very moving narrative—they are powerful because they create a space for us at the bedside.
Visit Sophie Cabot Black’s website for poems, audio and more. We are looking forward to her appearance at the 2014 Festival and to hear more about how she creates her beautiful poems.
Photo courtesy of http://www.sophiecabotblack.com/
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