Guest Reviewer Mehera Dennison
"The desert lay in wait,
more infinite than God, no less remote"
"Lives of the North American Martyrs"
In her fourth collection of poetry, Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters, Debora Greger departs from the style of her first books and joins the growing trend toward Project. The book is subtly divided into three sections: they are not named, separated only by a double space in the table of contents and introduced by a quotation (or three) on a separate page. The collection begins with four paragraphs, "The Landscape of Memory," apparently classified as a prose poem according to its placement in the table of contents (and after the first page of "introductory" quotations), which explains that Greger grew up near the site of the atomic plant that produced the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. In its proselike style, it also explains to the reader that Project is going to equal Repetition, at least for the first section of the book: It introduces some of the words that will be repeated through almost every poem in the book (one gets the feeling one is reading an extended sestina by the fifth poem): desert, dust, father, cloud, goats, white, snow (and we can soon add angel, altar, blood, bloom).[ Click to Order Greger's Desert Fathers, ... (soft $) ]
Not only are we beat over the head with words that quickly lose their resonance (at least in this section), but the first "poem" ends with a clincher last line that is repeated in two other poems. The first poem describes the physical desert landscape of a small town and explains the fact that her father (like all fathers in the town) worked for the atomic plant. It ends, "Even the dust, though we didn't know it then, was radioactive." What was a nice dramatic moment to introduce the collection loses power when it ends "The Age of Reason"--an interesting lyric about Sunday afternoons, Catholic prayer, and the coming to awareness of one's self in history (she is seven here)--and becomes the same story. After eight unrhymed tercets of past tense memory, we move into the future, the revelation that the landscape was, as we've been told (in the title of the collection even), irradiated:
"And did you drink the milk as a child?"
the doctor will ask, the voice of reason.
- "Milk from the dairy downwind?"
A variation on a theme is lovely and by no means unacceptable, but it becomes tiresome, a device, when it ends too many poems. In "The Blessing of the Throats," the "I" is eight, longing to be nine, longing to be a saint, playing the "Cold War" with her friends, cleverly in the everpresent cold snow. We leave a series of tercets for the future in a couplet, for the image of an unidentified woman (the author? the author's mother? does it matter?), clasping her throat, "as if you could see anything there, where an odd cluster of cancers would be found." And the doctor appears again to close "Northwest Passage":
"And did you eat fish from the river
more than once a week when you were a child?"
the doctor will ask, but not for years yet,
not for years.
"Memories of the Atomic Age" and "Ship's Burial," two poems that follow each other in sequence and are very different in length and content, depend on the exact same idea for closure: from the former, "Reactor cores, nuclear submarine, / buried out there for want of anything better"; the latter, "So in the desert they buried the heart / of the nuclear submarine." It begins to seem as if Greger doesn't trust her reader, or doesn't trust her own words to resound. One repeated phrase, "graveyard shift," seems subtle and meaningful in its first instance in "Northwest passage," but seems contrived when it appears on the following page in "A Brief History of Blasphemy for the Feast of the Assumption." For the first section of the book, the narrative seems too overwhelming, too labored--although the idea of fusing religion/Catholic education with an irradiated childhood (in that they both scar and need to be healed somehow) seems natural enough. But when Greger repeats over and over that only the fathers were cleared to work at the lab, the repetition doesn't strengthen the sentiment but makes it tiresome, makes what should be an interesting fact less interesting. And some of the repeated words, especially with the religious connotations, seems to stretch a metaphor too far. In (above mentioned) "The Age of Reason," the "I" watches a plate of fat "congeal, like a miracle." This line could be overlooked, but the following tercet, with its unclear "floor of heaven," pushes the limit:
Outside a leaf took its time to fall, bad angel,
down through the well-scrubbed floor of heaven,
down to the dirty,unreasonable desert.
The last two poems of the first section seem the freshest. "The Cloud of Unknowing" leaves the relentless narrative for an interlocking tercet lyric, explaining the narrator's process of descent into the memory of her youth and the destruction in Japan she is linked to through her father. She imagines a victim: "She wiped her hands clean. / Her skin came off in her hands." There is repetition here, but it seems earned (even the three ashes and dusts).
I should have been dust
lamenting the dust whose daughter I am.
O dust wrapped in wind,
in the desert I found these words
where they had burned
and put the ash on my tongue.
The idea of the horror of the bomb and the innocence and responsibility of the narrator and God/religion are fused powerfully. In fact, the poem just preceding, "A Brief History of Blasphemy for the Feast of the Assumption," (which binds Greger's youth, the detonation over Nagasaki, and the indoctrination of the Virgin's Assumption) seems one of the most most honest--politically, ethically, morally--American versions on the subject.
The second section seems more realized, less heavyhanded. The titular fathers are expanded to include historical and literary predecessors, as well as the biological and religious. The author is adult, considering a more general mythology (Greek, rather than American or her own), lamenting the death of James Merrill ("you whose words come back to haunt us"--oh, was he a poet?), and considering love and Ovid on a vacation to Italy. Her sense of humor comes out more fully. In "Ovid at Land's End," she describes a transvestite convention where a motel sign blinks "O Vacancy." She challenges Rilke and Ovid in the feminist "Bureau de change": "You must change your life? / You must change your money first." Quite a few poems elegize young love. In "The Love of Ruins," "a couple come from another country / to argue in the dust about dust." Here the oft-repeated dust resonates from the first section effectively; there is a genuine sense of loss and of history. The poem begins: "Where is the silence we were promised, / old wind happy just to stir old dust?" Distanced from the ruins and her own childhood, Greger watches a tour of children go by, "Boys against girls, girls against dust, / they scream with a happiness they can't contain." These poems function on more levels that the simple variations on the "childhood: good, if confusing; radiation: bad, if actual" theme from the first section.
The final section fuses the adult and child and seems an explanation for the joining of Italy and Washington in the same collection. In "I Dinosauri di Venezia" the narrator moves from a museum in Venice to one in her American childhood:
The past is empty:
the bones have been dug up
out of love. . .
The past is crushing. . .
How small my parents looked,
lost against the leggy pillars of a Brontosaurus
hardly parents anymore,
hardly mine. . .
The poem seems a summary, a justification for imposing the confessional-type history of Greger's childhood, although the overall effect of her history as a small and irradiated part of one of the most devastating events in recent history doesn't need any explanation. The poem also includes religion ("forehead bent as a doge's hat) and marriage ("O Love, where's the gold ring / to be thrown overboard, / quick, before the going gets rough?")--all her major themes. The monstrous shadow of the dinosaur, one of the most exciting things to children--evidence of an unreal past--looms convincingly and sweetly in a powerful poem of the book, even though it doesn't contain the word dust.