Roger Mitchell


All this trying to calmly
accept what I am is more
than I can manage

                               Combing the Waves (1979)

At first it surprises her that a hearse needs gas.
                               Balancing Acts (2006)

               I met Rochelle the year her after first book of poetry came out, 1971, published by New Rivers Press, then in New York City. Bill Truesdale had brought New Rivers Press from Minnesota to New York a year or two before. We met at Bill’s place on the upper west side, 92nd and Broadway, as I remember. If this sounds like the beginning of a memoir, it isn’t. My dealings with Rochelle, which lasted nearly to the end of her life, happened mostly through the mail, though I would see her sometimes at the AWP book fair in some big city hotel’s basement. I also visited her once in 1989 at her home in Washington County. Despite these distances, she was a warm, supportive presence in my life and gave me many books to review for ABR..
               I’ve spent the last few weeks rereading all of her work I own, which though considerable is not all, but enough to convince me that whatever Rochelle was about as a writer had much to do with positioning herself in the world. Fundamentally, the speaker of her poems felt she didn’t belong here or could be here only by the most strenuous efforts of accommodating herself to an inhospitable world, or ignoring it altogether. This sounds like the description of a confessional poet, and while she wrote during the heyday of that kind of poetry, and recognized the necessity, no matter what you wrote, of writing from the self, she avoided the self-flagellations that felt like self-advertisements, common to the poetry of Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Berryman and others. As with any poetry, what her work presents is not, strictly, her life but the life her art and its vision called for. The result, just in bibliographic terms, is a large body of diverse work, only the main portion of which is poetry, the one I’m sure she would have put first among her kinds of work, had she ever had reason to choose among them. For someone who never reached 60, it’s a prolific body of work.
               Birthday of Waters (1971), her first book, begins with a hugely prescient observation, line one of the first poem: “I sculpture my brood with my mouth.” As someone who, as Susan Mernit says on her blog, “saw writing as the act that had saved her from a life of suburban horror in Atlantic city,” Rochelle Ratner would of course have only metaphoric children. Shallowly buried in the observation is the metaphor that almost isn’t, i.e., having a “brood.” The “life of suburban horror” clearly called for children and before that, marriage. At this time in her life, she was newly liberated from life at home, living in the East Village and taking courses at the St. Marks Poetry Project. For someone who spent the first years of her writing life composing rhymed poems, the turn-around is partly explained. The poems of Birthday announce clearly their intention to be free, not just of rhyme, but rhythm, spacing, and anything vaguely, as was still said at the time, bourgeois.
At night there are stars in the meadow.

I watch their points swivel, take aim.

Tonight I pick one star
to call my own.    It is not
the brightest             Nor is it dull.                   It is
     an average star on an average
The world of her poems at this time is rarely social. She finds solace in nature, as above, or in symbolic dramas like this from “The Hell Doll.”
Her body is a long dark lake
flowing into itself.
He watches always from a distance,
a ship approaching a meadow in the fog.
As day brightens,
he begins to notice tall grass
he mistook for water.
She being a long dark lake, it seems unnecessary that “he” be any more human than she, but this is a drama outside the confines of a real, limited body–which Rochelle will have much to say about in future books–where he, though there, perhaps longed-for, keeps his distance. He is always watching and in time begins to notice that she is more than a lake, that some of what he thought was lake was in fact tall grass. She improves in his imagined gaze, which is to say, in her mind, verges on becoming a laconian dream.
               “Spring Recess,” the last poem in the book, again makes a prescient gesture. “Secrets are important for the baggage we have hidden” could mean that the secrets are the baggage which she has hidden inside the poems, poems which are meant to relieve her of that burden, to a degree anyway. If so, we are implicitly promised revelations in the future. The line might, though, merely be saying that the secrets and the baggage are two different things and that one will in some way someday be important to the other.
               Perhaps most typical of this first book is the poem, “At the Boles of My Arms,” where the speaker imagines herself to be some prehistoric creature risen from the slime. The poem uses an epigraph from Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey, and I think we are to see the speaker beginning a long journey of her (its?) own. The speaker is again alone (“At first I cling to swamps,/ as is my need.”), though the sperm of some mate is seeking her out. Not the mate, just its sperm.
I remain in the background, silent,
because I have not yet thought
to use the wiles of insects,
spread the word of my sex.
I sow my own seed...
I grow a child in my shadow,
at last independent of streams.
He is packed in a little box
which I’ve stuffed full of food.
In the manner of microbial swamp life, the mother does her breeding duty, lets the child go, and wanders off to other, less important species work. This fantasy centers on both the idea of motherhood, which came to obsess Rochelle later in life, and the near absolute difference between the human author and her invented creature. To what extent, we might ask, does the speaker see herself as “other?” Certainly, she was desperate to have a life different from the one she seems to have been sent toward as a child, and it could easily have been exciting to imagine being a creature who would breed easily and naturally without a man, family or home to mess things up. She’s almost ecstatic at the end of the poem.
My vision changes daily,
like the moon.
I am pale, unearthly,
intended to lure moths
in the evening light,
or I take the shape of a spider
to attract him.
There “he” is again, unnamed and unseen, but “out there” somewhere. Susan Mernit, who was her friend in these years, referred to Rochelle at this time as “Resolutely single.”
               The pressure of reality, though, came to be too great in Rochelle’s life and hence in her poetry for her to continue as a fantast. That’s at least what her second book, False Trees (1973) suggests, which begins with “Traveler,” a poem as journal. It’s as though she had run up against some sort of wall in writing poems and needed grounding in something like the daily observation of things. This would be a move, a small one, in the direction of her last books, made up mostly of prose poems couched in disturbingly realistic and apparently autobiographical terms. Considering the time she wrote in, the move she begins to make now will seem to be under the shadow of confessionalism:
Once in a while
I guess everyone’s locked in themselves.

Still it’s only a head-cold
that’s chained me:
shy little girl
in a top hat
on a raft.
Here she puts the chief criticism of confessionalism out front as disclaimer before then making a very sharp-edged image of the self and its predicament. Shy, obviously alone on a raft (echoes of Jim in Huck Finn, perhaps, another figure who doesn’t belong to the world he lives in), but wearing a top hat as if she were pro domo of her own particular circus. Clinging to something, as in the image of the raft, seems central here. Earlier in the poem, she said, “Every street’s a ledge/ that only one/ of us can cling to.” Next to these images of human isolation she puts her hope for relief from that condition. “Sometimes I’m sure a star/ will guide you toward me.” Or:
               At last I cry out:

Please come and shield me.
               “Poem For the Mother Inside Me” seems to be about a miscarriage, but is that fact, metaphor or both? It would seem to be the mother inside her that the speaker hoped to give birth to, but a different reality is suggested when someone whispers “D.O.A..”
And I looked down
to make sure that the face,
wasn’t mine.
Further disturbing images in the book suggest the speaker’s isolation and alienation from such norms as motherhood and relationship. In “A Corner Window on the Beach Side,” an older relative calls her “rhoda,/ rhoda...not rochelle.” In “Farmhouse,” “ghosts/ walk toward you like/ mothers// in the water.” “This bed’s too big for one./ There’s something missing,” says another poem. “An old boyfriend/ calls me long distance.” The boyfriend’s call hints that something good might have survived the relationship, but in another poem, “Reflex: Part One,” we find
two bodies trapped together
but it’s too dark to define them...

One holds the image to the light
and glances through it,

makes his chest hairs into maggots
and the jewels on her neck

a mine of skeletons....

Is there no other way we can grow things?
The “ghosts” of normality—the empty bed, the old boyfriend, even the mother—reach toward the speaker, but she longs for another way to grow her “brood” than by being trapped. “I’ve got to find reasons for fingers,” says “Reflex: Part Two,” “for those small bones we can’t see...Our arms are cut off at the elbow...Our eyes coming out of our bodies.” Against such deformations or mutilations (“gash or wound”) she finds “that white space
that leaves us asking

filling negative space with
men tall
dark and handsome.”
Into this half-tormented landscape, with its figures of conventional maleness, “tall/ dark and handsome,” wanders an occasional poem of surprise and relief, like the little hypnagogic, “A Lovesong, Lines on Waking.”
Deep in her lips
she holds an island.
She can sense the stones above her
still unfed
not washed clean yet.
Once a woman’s breasts.

She passes boats
in darkness—
heavy arms
moles tied to shoulders
quick and blunt and somehow bitter.
White foam
more a grave’s white.
Our daughter playing music underwater.
Beautiful as it is, the poem is still raked by hints of breast cancer and miscarriage, as though even her dreams couldn’t be free of the torments of childlessness and disease. And who is implied by “Our?”
               Nearly twenty years lie between False Trees and Someday Songs: Poems Toward a Personal History (1992), a gap filled by, among other things, Practicing to be a Woman (1982), her new and selected volume. The title of the latter alone suggests a continued struggle for identity along the lines suggested by feminism, a movement that would have given considerable solace to someone committed from an early age to avoiding a bourgeois life. The poems of Someday Songs, however, rescue the speaker from having to jettison all that was dear to her by turning to what she can remember and recover of her Jewish heritage and those in the family who lived by its rituals. It’s as though Ratner suddenly realized that she carried in her heritage tools of resistance as well as rituals of community which might alleviate the isolating alienation of her early work, and indeed, the poems of this remarkable volume have a firmer line and a clearer purpose.
The Jews always knew to travel light

just a few books,
the clothes on their backs.
Ratner’s persona is not running from a pogrom, rather from the stability and conventions of middle class America and its resulting isolation. Nor is she suddenly embracing the texts of Judaism. Rather, like “The Poor Beadle of Berditchev,” she feels them in her heart by recalling relatives who lived and prayed by their injunctions. “We were taught the rituals/ before we could understand them,” says one poem, and though there is only an intellectual understanding of them now, the acts of teaching, of being taught, still burn with affection. The book is filled with mention of relatives, most of them dead, grandfather Tischler, grandmother Bessie Ratner, Rose, her mother and father. A section of her poem in memory of Bessie Leon Ratner brings out the complexity of relationship and the poet’s need to preserve it.
There is a woman here
who is a child
there is a child
who is sick

Mother of My Father
join us

Come and sit with us
the kitchen is warm
there is mint tea

Rejoin me here
as Brother to brother
Sister to sister
Mother to me
Daughter from me

You who stood by me
through twelve lives,
in this life

I am yet young.
I need all your love.
The sick woman here is both Grandma and the speaker, but it is the speaker now who can make, by way of the poem, a means for all of them to “Rejoin.” In a final gesture, the speaker also becomes a mother. She gives herself a child by making Grandma, now dead, a “Daughter from me.”
               The next phase of Ratner’s life is dominated by her buying an old farmhouse in Washington County and later finding the man she would marry. The sense of not belonging to the world seems replaced by its opposite, as the poems of House and Home (2003) show. She addresses the poem, “The Thirty-Ninth Year” to an old friend.
Do you remember I used to say
the only ones who loved me
were my parents,
and they had no choice
in the matter?

Well these last three birthdays
there’s been a man’s love.
Finding and fixing an old house was a parallel kind of rescue, almost a metaphor for the newfound love.
At the top
where the foundation settled
they’d stuffed in insulation
and also rags.
Vern pulled it out
piece by piece,
a broken bottle,
a dead rat.
These obstacles to comfort are treated almost tenderly, since to overcome them involves a loving agency in the world.
               If the purpose of life is to find happiness or contentment by coming to terms with life, realistic but agreeable, then House and Home is a watershed event. In Someday Songs Ratner had made a kind of peace with her Jewish past, that part of her family heritage that wasn’t quite so bourgeois. In House and Home, she found a place and that more elusive thing, love. Death and dying, one might have thought, would have been included in marriage and ownership as slow, distant eventualities, but they weren’t. Soon, Ratner was dealing with cancer, successfully at first, less so as time went on. The effect on her poetry was immediate and startling.
               First of all, the new poems are in prose. Less attention is paid to the minutiae of poem-making, where to break line and stanza in particular, how to use them in managing rhythm. This puts more focus on what the words say, less on how they look or sound on the page. The poem has a strong sense of unit coherence, though. It is itself, whole and compact, usually a single, block paragraph. Since the dominant unit of the paragraph is the sentence, we are borne along by it, take it to its conclusion where, in her typical poem, almost anything can happen. “Home Stretch” from Balancing Acts (2006) typifies much of the new work.
There was record-breaking heat the day they decided to marry, but that didn’t stop the rain from pouring two weeks later and it didn’t reverse her mother’s stroke or stop her from having a brain tumor which ended up not being a brain tumor after all. She wanted to die a wife but that didn’t stop either of their mothers from dying, or her dentist. And twelve years later it’s hot again and her friends with birthdays have moved away and maybe it’s a tumor and maybe not and she’s twelve years older and still doesn’t know what she wants but if she loses another ten pounds she wants to wear her mother’s wedding ring, the one they broke stretching.
This is a sickness narrative, for one thing, an uncertain sickness narrative where the doctors in both hers and her mother’s cases can’t seem to pinpoint the problem. Was it a tumor or wasn’t it? A similar uncertainty infects the speaker who “doesn’t know what she wants,” even though the poem would appear to be describing the “home stretch” of her life, a life likened to a horserace where winning is dying. This black humor is reinforced by the scattered logic of the poem. How could record-breaking heat reverse her mother’s stroke? What does the dentist’s dying have to do with these matters? All kinds of people die every day. “And twelve years later it’s hot again,” she says, as though it’s the first time in twelve years. She says in some amazement she’s twelve years older, too. What did she expect? Everybody is. Everybody who’s alive, that is. Ratner uses a kind of surrealistic disconnect to underscore the speaker’s sense of irreversible calamity where though she doesn’t know what she wants, other than not be so mortal, she reaches out to her dead mother as though asking for a real stretch, a guide to her own dying.
               We are invited, of course, to see the poems in this book as balancing acts, the first section of which returns to familiar territory, chiefly the speaker’s sense of being different or not belonging. “She was a clumsy girl, terrified of spilling.” “She’s waiting to be the tomboy Daddy wanted.” “Stupid body,” she says of her own in “Food Fights I.” “Chunky” was apparently one of the words used to describe her as a girl when she was fond of the large Hershey bars with nuts and raisins that went by that name.
               No longer interested in ameliorating fantasies or incipient myth, these poems draw on facts she would have avoided as a younger poet. The first poem, “The Vagina’s Lip,” celebrates the speaker’s unusually formed body.
The vagina’s lip was put there to protect her. She was a clumsy girl, terrified of spilling. She was old for her age, motherless…She wasn’t the type who got crushes on movie stars or crooners. It was a fairly straightforward lip, like you might see on those orange or turquoise ceramic pitchers…, gently curving outward. Except hers curved inward. So smooth she didn’t even know it was there.
Spilling is the major trope in the poem. The fear she had of spilling as a child was mirrored in her body, which in certain ways kept her from knowing her own body and by extension herself. This is reversed as the poem shines a bright light on this most secret part of the body and initiates a body of work that will “spill” her deepest needs and longings, no matter how awkward or “clumsy.” Gently curving ceramic ornaments will be replaced by chunks of edgy prose. Both need to be seen together, though, perhaps the word is balanced, the fear of spilling put next to the willingness to spill the truth of her awkwardness, her sense of being protected by the very awkwardness that had once made her cringe before the world.
               The poem, “Balancing Act,” is a good example of complex balancing. The poem begins at sundown, “the sun in control, the earth responsive.” “Always a nervous child,” she had a fear of heights which her mother reinforced. She “couldn’t even stand on a chair without her mother shrieking.” The speaker’s life, though, was full of heights, houses and apartments with balconies, and in the near present of the poem, her mother’s death. She honors and mourns that death by going out on a window ledge at sundown, “tries to hold steady,” and waits for the night to fall. The balancing of night and day preserves the rhythm of life and death. Like the fear, the mother is gone; the mother lives.
                Unlike the typical surrealist poem, Ratner’s poems at this stage in her life show little or no interest in willful or random juxtapositions generated by the speaker’s mind, like the fantasies she constructed for her alienation in early poems. Now she is drawn to those “absurdities” found almost daily in ordinary life. This would explain why so many of the poems in Ben Casey Days (2008) have headlines as titles, the kind you might find on the local pages of, say, The New York Post. “Pennsylvania Man Demands Damages from Ex-Girlfriend Who Glued Genitals” seizes our disbelief and delight, but the poem, told from the girlfriend’s viewpoint, is the unhappy and familiar story of a jilted lover who has learned the bonding powers of Crazy Glue by doing repairs around the house, a house that seems to have needed considerable repair. When the boyfriend leaves (“dumps her for a girl barely out of her teens”)—unbonds, you might say—she waits her chance—two years—when he wants to see her again. “After sex, he sits in that chair [the one she fixed with Crazy Glue] and begins a litany of her faults.” She lures him into bed again sometime later. “On the nightstand next to her alarm clock and a single red rose she bought to make the evening romantic” she placed the small tube of Crazy Glue. The former lover, suddenly bonded to himself, literally and symbolically, in the area of his intensest awareness, rises alarmed and crazed with rage.
               The understory, of course, is an old one for Ratner, whose self-image was not well nurtured, the tenuousness of relations between men and women who, it turns out, have their different ways of mistrusting intimacy. That the most successful bonding here is achieved through a glue called Crazy lends another dimension to the portrait. That things naturally “fall apart” is another.
               “Pennsylvania Man” sounds like it was a retelling of a newspaper story, most likely with a few elaborations and added details. The single red rose, for one. Though who knows, and more important, what difference does it make if the facts are bent to a truth? One of the interesting dimensions of these poems is the avid way they turn outward to the world. A dying woman, Ratner, turns to the world, the random but consistently odd, amusing, and painful stories of people struggling to stay alive, and finds, if not everyone, a great many who share her dilemma, the one of being alive. “Housework Cuts Breast Cancer Risk” takes a different course. Ratner wrote these poems knowing that she was most likely dying from a recurrence of her breast cancer, so in “Housework” she seems to have taken the basic outline of the newspaper story and run its “crazy” hope over her own life, literally or inventively we don’t know.
She empties the living-room waste basket at least once every two weeks, if the maid doesn’t show. Or if papers start spilling onto the floor. She stores garbage in the refrigerator after the compactor closes down for the night. Every few months she takes a sweater or two to the cleaners. They say this building was built with the laundry room looking out on a yard where kids could play, to make it family-friendly. The only time she’s been in the laundry room has been when the maid’s run out of quarters. She tosses pillows every which way onto the bed so she can get to the treadmill, then usually she’s too tired to move. She drinks from paper cups when not straight out of the bottle. She eats off paper plates, but seldom eats at home. Still, the maid faithfully cleans the stove top twice a month. For the last night of Chanukah her husband gives her an Electrolux convertible vacuum, a little hand unit that also has a long handle and floor brush, battery operated. This is because he loves her.
A frenzy of housework to beat back cancer, topped by the gift of love from her husband, an Electrolux convertible vacuum. Doomed lovers whom the poem already knows are doomed but who dust their hearts out (with how much certainty of success?) balancing dread and hope, watched over by the household angel who cleans even what is not dirty.
               Rochelle Ratner’s poetry exhibits a kind of fearlessness. The persona of her poems faced disabling, indeed, mortal threats, and into their snarling maws she threw the composure and force of her writing, a mixture of love, anger, an almost self-effacing modesty, and a ready sense of absurdist humor. A quick and perceptive critic of convention in American life, she was humane enough to see the goodness of home and love that lay almost hidden behind it. Like the old farmhouse in Washington County, it had dead rats in the wall, but it could also be remade into a place of deep life attachments. It took courage to refuse what she was so fully given in her early life, a family that wanted its own continuation but wanted it, you might say, more than it wanted her, which meant that it took even more courage to go back toward it, embrace it, and through marriage—which she resisted at first—accept the essential core of it. Then, of course, the cancer, the public face of her resistance to it hammered out in rich, humorously-inflected prose poems.

Roger Mitchell is the author of eleven books of poetry, among them Lemon Peeled the Moment Before: New and Selected Poems (2008). Two previous books include Half/Mask (2007) and Delicate Bait, which Charles Simic chose for the Akron Prize, in 2003. Other recognition for his writing includes two fellowships each from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Indiana Arts Commission and one from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He lives in mountains of northern New York.
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Blogger Ed Baker said...

I, for one, appreciate this. Thanks.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A lovely essay about Rochelle and her poetry. I liked the excerpts chosen to illustrate this.

7:45 AM  
Blogger mark young said...

(from Roger Mitchell, via Otoliths Editor)

Many thanks, Carol. Rochelle, of course, made writing the essay easy. Her work is honest, hard and funny.

Best regards,

10:46 PM  

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