Pulled by the Hair: Deborah Digges and the Power of Myth

Joelle Biele

When news of Deborah Digges’ death reached me, the first image that came to mind was after a reading at Harvard. I want to say the building was on Plympton; the room had a high ceiling, and if I remember right, a fireplace with thick decorative molding. Deborah is surrounded by her students from Tufts, swishing the voluminous skirt of what she announced was her “Jesse James coat,” a big trench with the belt cinched tight. Deborah was my college advisor, I took classes with her for two years, and I can still see her standing by a window before taking her seat and scheduling appointments in her tiny red book. She introduced her students to Darwin and Freud, Emerson and Keats. She emphasized sound over sense and the importance of dwelling in ideas. She liked to quote Richard Hugo, telling us that if we wanted to communicate, we should “use the telephone,” and passed along her preference for ellipses and indirection, etymologies and histories, poems that create and recreate experience, poems that generate heat. Listening to her was, I think for many of us, a little like falling in love.

Deborah’s poetry had changed markedly since I was a student in her class. After working through the autobiographical material and narrative style that characterizes her first two books of poems, Vesper Sparrows (1986) and Late in the Millennium (1989), and reworking that material in her memoir, Fugitive Spring (1992), she was ready to do something new. The poems in Rough Music (1995) were more daring and immediate, more willing to give up control, both in terms of what she let into the poems and how she moved them down the page. She began making startling use of myth and other stories in single-column poems of varying end-stopped lines, clauses modifying clauses so that the poems seem to unfold in real time as the speaker revises, extends, and changes her direction of thought. The poems in her new book, The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart, come from the manuscripts and drafts that were found after her death, an apparent suicide, in 2009. Her editor at Knopf, Deborah Garrison, and son, Charles, edited the poems and arranged their order. What makes this book so profoundly moving is its deep and continuing exploration of alienation and grief. Pulled by her hair like Persephone in “Write a Book a Year,” she makes suffering her subject and captures in gorgeous, concentrated language the currents of loss.

Whether writing about hobos camped along a river, patients in a mental hospital, women stealing flowers, or one of her favorite figures, sparrows, Digges regularly used images of outcasts, those she called “exiles” and “fugitives.” In her first book, the opening poem, “For The Daughters of Hannah Bible Class of Tipton, Missouri’s Women’s Prison, Mother’s Day, 1959,” introduces the theme of isolation that runs through her poetry and prose. It also displays her authoritative tone, the roots of which can be found in her Baptist upbringing and Wordsworthian belief in the poet as sage. When asked, Digges traced the tone back to her strong identification with men; she believed there were many people inside her, “some men, some women.”1 The poem draws a parallel between the speaker, who would go with her mother and sisters to the local prison, and the inmates, who met them for music and prayer. The family made the women bouquets for Mother’s Day, the number of flowers corresponding to the number of children they had. Driving through Tipton years later, the speaker can’t recall the women’s faces.

I must have been afraid if I looked too long
I might take on the expression of the thief
or murderess—I had my own sins to contend with
that bloomed in dreams like bruises,
like corsages pinned to identical dresses
or strapped like watches to their wrists.

What’s always struck me about this passage is that even as a child the speaker was troubled by her sins, which she reveals in Fugitive Spring to be her struggle with belief. We learn halfway through the poem that seeing her son is what set the memory in motion. As a young mother in The Stardust Lounge (2001), Digges recalls feeling cut off from other women with children. The speaker in the poem takes time to describe the women as mothers, depicting the sorrow and temporary happiness they feel as they lift their children up and show them yard toys. They are idealized, and the need for identification is palpable: “Once they were every young girl escaping, / driving fast past these small towns.” The child had her own sins to contend with, the women had theirs, and now the speaker has hers, none of which are explored. The speaker here uses a neat and not fully investigated metaphor, as Adrienne Rich did years ago in “The Diamond Cutters,” avoiding the situation’s complexity so as not to take off the sage-like mask.

With her third book, Rough Music, Digges saw herself as writing outside “serious” mainstream American poetry and portrayed her speaker as an outcast. She objected to what she saw as the requirement of ending a poem on an uplifting note or pat moral and avoiding “sentimental” subject matter.2 By sentimental she was referring to the triggering subject of her poem “Nursing the Hamster,” which is about the difficulty and perhaps impossibility of reaching a troubled son. There’s nothing sentimental about it, suggesting perhaps a previous hesitancy to mix challenging emotions and vaulted language in the domestic sphere. Using myth and stories from literature and history, Digges begins handling material that may have been too knotty as straight autobiography and reveals a more complicated view of the self. Speaking of the title poem in an interview, Digges said, “the person being driven out was a new kind of thing. I was joining a more subversive part of myself that had to be driven out of the community.”3 “Rough Music” opens with the speaker describing the English folk practice of humiliating someone who has trespassed societal norms. Surrounding that person’s house, they bang on pots and pans and shout epithets until the person leaves, not to return. Both separate from and a part of herself, the crowd drives the speaker to a kind of madness until she scatters them like sand. Linguistically, Digges makes more use of metaphors and lists, giving the poem its speed and striking crescendo, elements she would continue to employ in her later work. Digges characterized the change in her writing, interestingly, as a rebellion instead of a natural development. Unlike the speaker in her poems, she was greatly concerned with how her new work would be received by reviewers and others in her circle, particularly in its portrayals of women. She felt the book was risky “in terms of being potently, femininely sexual.”4

The poems in The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart remind me of Li-Young Lee’s description of what it would be like to write a poem like Robert Frost’s “Directive:” “It is like riding a horse that’s a little too wild for you, so there’s this tension between what you can do and what the horse decides it’s going to do.”5 Reading this book, I get the feeling that Digges is riding that horse, particularly in a poem like “Dance of the Seven Veils,” a poem that enacts acute psychological states. For a number of years “Dance of the Seven Veils” was the book’s working title, so I think it’s fair to say it was a poem at the heart of Digges’ concerns, the title going back to Salome’s dance for King Herod. Abandoning the domestic world for the one outside, the speaker no longer makes bouquets to bring into her home but hides among dandelions, “islands of gold.” Freely mixing the Biblical and the classical, she moves to the world of Homer and Ovid where the weeds become sirens, the speaker calling the bird-women her sisters. Joining them on the cliff, they sing and call “the mighty in.” The men are captivated by their beauty and words.

And when the men, they stayed
too long, when we grew tired of them—
each fat in love, drunk on our milky wine,
we let our hair shriek white,
the filaments that shine like fog
over a dawn sea, sparks at sunrise,
ready we were to just be old again and bald.

The sirens are fully in charge as Digges swerves inside the column by piling clauses, bringing in the vocal image of the hair turning white, and capping off the sentence with the surprising and final sound of “bald.” She generates, as she does in so many poems in this book, a driving, lyric intensity that turns into song. The women live between two worlds, the land and the sea. From the edge of society they exert their own power.

Digges often reflected upon figures from history who received little acclaim during their lifetimes, figures who were ridiculed or persecuted, whose hardships were the source of their own work. She related to their stories, and living in Amherst, she was particularly interested in Emily Dickinson.6 In her earlier books Digges wrote about people such as Anna Ahkmatova, Caravaggio, Galileo, and Sylvia Path, a primary influence, and in this collection she writes about St. Francis in “A Hermit’s Life” and Robert Schumann in “Red Woolen Cape,” one of the book’s rougher yet no less necessary poems. Schumann aspired to be a concert pianist, but his hopes ended when he seriously injured his finger, either by using a mechanical device to strengthen his hand or by operating on himself to improve his playing skills. In his later years, after he became a composer, he attempted suicide and had himself institutionalized. “Red Woolen Cape” concentrates on Schumann’s instability.

Schumann, like a deaf museum, went insane,
not in a rabble of octaves like a child at the piano,
but in the one note A, the light of earth,
the inmates screaming a music behind glass,
the very entourage of knowing.

Insanity gives the patients access to something spectacular, the essence of knowledge found in the human voice, but since Schumann can no longer gain entry to the imagination, he cannot hear this choirs and find comfort despite his heartbreaking wish.

At the end of “Haying,” the speaker finds herself in a similarly extreme emotional state. She is mourning the loss of her beloved, who knew her, she says in “Green,” before she knew herself. His absence seems particularly trying considering the speaker’s reclusiveness and the lack of acceptance she feels in many of the other poems. Looking over a freshly mowed field, the speaker recalls the time they spent together watching horses. After describing the field, she makes the transition into the poem’s unflinching second half with a metaphor: the fog becomes “ghost crowds / hauling willow baskets.” The metaphor brings in two of Digges’ recurring images, first with ancestors who both watch over and judge her and with “willow,” the scene from her Blue Willow china that tells the story of a girl and her lover fleeing her father’s wrath before turning into birds. After the ghosts, the poem moves into a series of fiercely declarative sentences. Building to the poem’s disquieting conclusion with parallel structure, she tells the beloved, “I’d try on death to find you,” which she follows with the astonishing image of death as a “gown made of grasses” and declares: “I have lain down across such orchard grasses on your grave.” Digges liked to talk about poems as having their own architecture, and here, she moves deeper into the sensory image of the speaker on the grass in the second and third lines before coming to the third and final declaration:

I’ve lapped your freeze and thaw,
season of wildflowers, season of leaf fall,
as close as I can get to you on a bed of straw.

With the frightening and animal-like verb “lapped,” the speaker is at the edge of herself. Lying on top of the beloved’s grave, her grief is overwhelming and she is alone.

Digges loved the phenomenological work of philosopher Gaston Bachelard, and she paraphrased much of The Poetics of Space in class. She was fascinated by his ideas about houses, nests, cellars, and attics. Talking about William Goyen’s work, Bachelard says, the house “must integrate an element of unreality. All values must remain vulnerable, and those that do not are dead.”7 “The House that Goes Dancing” certainly has Bachelard’s element of unreality, an unreality that through music becomes utterly real. Responding to the rough music she fought against in her earlier book, the poem opens with the speaker reporting that from time to time the house dances through the yard and into town. She is beset by the community: “The neighbors, appalled, they called the police. / The dog catcher chases my dogs up the street.” The house continues to dance in “raven black boots / or enormous bed slippers,” Digges bringing in an exuberance she hadn’t used since “My Amaryllis” (Rough Music). She switches to the present tense, and the house continues “her grief stricken dance” out of sight. The speaker’s struggle with loss is undeniable. The contents of the house begin to whirl and crash, the speaker concentrating on the beloved’s belongings and those they shared, “all our mirrors well shattered, our china, our crystal, / our lightbulbs, our pictures have crashed from the walls. / A magnificent mess!” The dance is an anxious celebration, a desperate attempt at letting go.

The house has always been one of Digges’ central metaphors. It represents the mind and the afterlife; it tells the story of her life; it stands for impermanence. In “Broom” (Rough Music), the speaker recalls the many houses she has lived in, and in “Guillotine Windows” (Trapeze 2004), she imagines someone seeing her house in the future. At the time of her death she was researching a novel, tentatively titled Ten Thousand Windows, about heiress Sarah Winchester and her round-the-clock, thirty-eight year renovation of her California home. In “The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart” the speaker lets us know this house is the final one, and the poem appears to be the last she wrote. Like “The House that Goes Dancing,” it is full of motion, but instead of the house acting for itself, cha-chaing and tangoing down the street, this house is acted upon, the wind gusting through the doors, scattering sheet-music, blowing all the candles out. The swirling grammar—fragments followed by fragments, the lack and confusion of subjects—creates a sense of chaos:

From the mantle smashes birds’ nests, teacups
full of stars as the wind winds round,
a mist of sorts that rises and bends and blows
or is blown through the rooms of my heart
that shatters windows,
takes the bedsheets as though someone
had just made love.

An oceanic roar, the speaker accepts the tumult around her: “It is not for me to say what is this wind / or how it came to blow through the rooms of my heart.” Suddenly the wind stops; it then goes through “the rooms of the dead.” It is cool and quiet and “we,” assumedly the speaker and the beloved, “will never lie down again.” With this final declaration, the speaker has accepted the end. There is no other house. It is destroyed and the speaker is gone.

Myth gave Digges the freedom to handle the subject matter she previously felt she had to avoid and afforded a kind of honesty that proved too difficult in some of the earlier, autobiographical work, invested as it was in the idea of presenting the best and wisest self. It also complimented her vatic voice. Digges’ speaker is akin to an actor on stage who steps toward the audience, speaks to herself, addresses the person next to her or someone in the wings. The speaker is caught in the moment. The poems could come across as mannered if they were delivered as realistic narratives, but in these compelling and elemental lyrics the speaker is in a heightened state of awareness, delving into the friction between binaries—inside/outside, society/outcast, men/women, life/death. Yes, sometimes Digges reaches too far, as with “Dancing with Emerson,” or isn’t tough enough, as with “To Love You,” but she took the risk that Hugo urges poets to take: taking off the mask. She speaks from a place of exile and anger, tenderness and mercy. One of Digges’ touchstones was the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who believed that the role of poetry is “to let the ear hear, the hand race (and when it doesn’t race—to stop).”8 Reading her final book of luminous, bristling poems, I believe Digges would agree.

Notes

1Zubick, Kellen. “Coming in Late: An Interview with Deborah Digges,” Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fall Winter, 1991, 15-16.

2Pick, Nancy. “Rebellion Fuels Rough Music,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 31, 1996.

3Loisel, Laurie. “Digges Awarded $50,000: Poet Says Prize is Encouraging,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 12, 1996.

4Pick.

5Ingersoll, Earl, ed. Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee. Rochester, NY: Boa Editions, 2006, 128.

6Loisel.

7Beacon Press, 1969, 59.

8Selected Poems. New York: Penguin, 1994, xiv.

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