David Baker and I both admired Katie Peterson’s first collection, This One Tree (New Issues, 2006), and when I saw new work from Peterson in the KR queue, I nabbed it immediately. What always strikes me about Peterson’s work is how exceptionally intelligent her lyric voice is: and by “intelligent” I mean ethical intelligence and emotional intelligence as well as the intellect as more commonly define it. There is a precision in both her thought and her feeling, a precision that carries over into the almost lapidary specificity of her images and breaks. In “Elegy,” we see this in the way Peterson cantilevers the surface of her thought over line and stanza, carefully shuttling the reader (the reader as shuttle, within the poem’s loom).
Peterson is careful never to name or address the object of her elegy; at the end of her second stanza, she avers “I wanted a woman who grabs,” and indeed “the ghost” is figured as feminine in the final stanza. That’s all we know of grief’s object.
Instead, the poem carefully works the image of that “branch I thought of as near dead,” which now “comes into a cascade of flowers / the color of champagne,” that beverage of celebration. The half-dead laurel branch is a “dark arm / that scratched my window” in winter. “I could have ripped it right out,” the poet explains, but “Something kept me from that.”
But it is not the ghost, the absence of the beloved, even the beckoning laurel that really troubles this speaker: it’s the speaker’s failure to find the right language to cover the loss. “For weeks, I couldn’t think of the right / figure from myth,” she tells us. Along with the loss of the human comes the loss of myth and its dependencies, the anchors of our metaphysical being, what Eliot figured as that “blessèd face” (“in Ash-Wednesday”) from which one turns away.
As David Baker observed, there is something stern about the second half of “Elegy,” the speaker’s myriad refusals, her final promise. At their heart: “because the rules have changed, / there is nothing beautiful to obey.” As in another Eliot poem (“Little Gidding”: “you are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid”), what the speaker is left with is not “beauty,” but action. In Peterson’s poem, the equation is this: “If she asks, I will do what she says.” She will do. She will not speak, will not depend upon language, which anyway she has, on some level, lost, in common with the islanders who “lost / the ability to make pottery on a wheel” for three hundred years.
The speaker in “Elegy” will not only believe in a ghost—she will obey that ghost, if that ghost presents itself. This is her “difficult” promise. Not in a spirit of obedience to God or tradition, as the Eliot of “Little Gidding” would have it, but as an act of defiance, and in full knowledge that any such action (obedience to such a thing as a ghost!) is doomed to human failure. The poem turns to the living—to the reader, or some other, living man or woman—only in its final, severe gesture: “So when I fail her, you will know / exactly how to punish me.”
In “The Dragon,” the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly suggests that what we see in moments of exigency is that which lies beyond “the report / Of beauty.” In Peterson’s elegiac world, loss has subtracted or effaced beauty: there is no longer anything “beautiful to obey.” It is a bleak vision, except when reversed, that is, cast back onto the human. Is this, then, what life among the living offers: “something beautiful to obey”?
There are two worlds in the poem, the world in which we take our cues from beauty and the world in which we take our cues from ghosts. They are the same world. When someone we love dies, the borders between the two worlds become porous. Sometimes we cross them. Sometimes we mean to; sometimes we don’t. Peterson’s poem, like the mythic pomegranate she rejects (but whose “difficulty” she appropriates) is a passport, a talisman of that journey.