by Cicely Angleton, Elaine Magarrell, and Reed Whittemore
Barclay Bryan Press, ©2003, 45 pgs.
A Review by Ed Zahniser
If it hasn’t yet dawned on you that someday you’re worm food—as the Robin Williams character tells his lads in “Dead Poets Society”—you need this book. Not to scare you, but to console, or so you can witness to your own aging. But it’s not a self-help book; if it were, my telling you about it would defeat the purpose . . .
If Tibetans can have a Book of the Dead, certainly we can have a Book of Aging. Our culture is doing just that. Elaine Magarrell writes in “Channel Island Trail:” “. . . . This is as close / as you get to it, / the bloody industry of the heart. / The trail drops off so steep / from here. Turn around. / I am old. Help me down.” Cicely Angleton takes a wild, roundhouse swing in “De Senectute:” “how I’d like to smack / the god who designed old age / and give him a hearty whack / to consummate my rage. / Wham / in the solar plexus.”
The six- by eight-inch book’s cover is solid black ink, with sparse, reversed typography, and an inset four-color illustration, “Hawk’s Release II”—about the size of a big commemorative postage stamp—by Debra Conklin. Atop the back cover, letters reversed out of the black field to the white paper stock below proclaim: “Three distinguished poets take an unsentimental look at getting old.” While the set-up is somber, the contents aren’t
The book’s title comes from its final poem’s title. Reed Whittemore’s “Inventory” observes that “To pass through the season of loss and emerge with a good suit / is to thank God / And take inventory.” This credo for aging sounds a bit like the Arabic dictum: “Trust Allah but tether your camels.” These poets take inventory.
When I was a sophomore in college in 1964, Whittmore began his first tenure as Poetry Consultant of the Library of Congress—the office now known as Poet Laureate and held by Kay Ryan. Whittemore held the post again starting in 1984, the year my younger son was born. I had heard Whittemore read for the three-day 50th anniversary of Poetry Magazine at the Library in October 1962. Poetry Magazine was only five years older than Whittemore, who was born September 11, 1919. Do the math.
What you won’t find in this book is self-pity. These are poets. Even their subjectivity wears objective armor. Introducing the book, poet Barbara Goldberg quotes Bette Davis: “old age is not for sissies.” Inventory projects courage, human faith, and humor. Angleton writes of “Aunt Clarice:” “She didn’t give a damn. / Confusion has its rationale. // I’m nuts therefore I am.”
Roger Gilbert wrote in the Winter 2008 Michigan Quarterly Review: “ We stand at the threshold of a Golden Age of octogenarian poetry. . . . such poetry was extremely scarce before the twentieth century.” He then cites Richard Wilbur, Hayden Carruth, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti writing into their 80s, with Ruth Stone “still writing magnificently in her nineties.” And, says Gilbert, coming soon are W. D. Snodgrass, Gerald Stern, Robert Bly, John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich, and Gary Snyder.
Inventory has carved out a prophetic niche as the advance guard for a coming poetic cloud of witnesses who will give us a perspective rare for prior generations. In “Desk,” Whittemore asks: “Why does one have to be messy, corrupt and old? / I say tear down firetraps, burn hovels, / Lest they go on for pages, naked and sad.” And in “The Day of Death” Magarrell writes: “If you want silence, / you shall have it. If you want / talk you will finally / be heard. Even believed.”
Ed Zahniser lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. His third book of poems Mall-hopping with the Great I AM was published by Somondoco Press in 2006.