Acclaimed writer Doug Anderson’s latest poetry book is titled Undress, She Said. The “she,” we come to learn in “Beloved,” the book’s penultimate poem, is Death, who is inviting the speaker into her bed. Death, in the form of a woman, flits through this collection. We see her in an early poem, “The Angel of Death,” which begins, “
She is here again with her little black car, wings
folded and tucked under her sweater
Her magenta hair, nose ring, black socks with little skulls.
This figure takes the speaker on a morning drive up a mountain, speaking to him,
I want you to get used to me, she says, so when I come for the last time,
you won’t be frightened.”
And Death reminds the speaker how she has been present in his life:
…You’ve seen me before. I was there
when you tried to keep a man
from bleeding to death. I was there when you could not stand to live another day without the woman who broke you.
These two moments seem central to the life and themes that Anderson reflects on in this book.
The first, the bleeding man, seems to come from the violence of the Vietnam War, the second, “the woman who broke you,” from the aches and elusiveness of love.
Given that Anderson is 79, it’s not surprising that these poems confront mortality. They do so by acknowledging the body’s demise, such as in his opening poem, “All Over Town,” in which the speaker muses on how people throughout his town are, like him, showering alone, and then catalogs the “hurt places” his own body has “gathered.”
The side of my face where they dug out
the big chunk of cancer and the long suture mark
on my neck where they took the graft to plug it.
I feel like an undergraduate pointing out the potent consonance and assonance in these lines, but it’s important to note that the book is full of lines like these, skilled without being flashy.
Though mortality is signaled by the body’s demise, the book’s real struggle is with its psychological toll, particularly the sense that there is much that still must be resolved in life.
My friend, I need help with dying.
I have a life that’s like
an overstuffed storage locker,
says the speaker in “Invocation.” And in other poems, the word “guilt” surfaces, such as in the opening of the poem, “Mother’s Day”:
“And the guilt settles like crows on the telephone wires down this darkening road.”
The poem has an arresting image a few lines later when the speaker
turn[s] over the dead gull
and sees the maggots at work on the other side.
Death isn’t peaceful; there is
the churn of the maggots, and I can’t help but see correspondences between this ugly energy and
the churn of the speaker’s mind.
These themes are established in the first section of the book, “Love in Plague Time,” which
makes up nearly half the collection. The second section, The War Never Ends,” addresses the
Vietnam War and its aftermath for a veteran. Anderson was a Navy corpsman with a Marine rifle
battalion in 1967 and saw heavy combat, an experience that he has written about in other works,
most notably in the poetry collection The Moon Reflects Fire and the memoir Keep Your Head Down: Vietnam, the Sixties, and a Journey of Self-Discovery. In these new poems about Vietnam, the most striking may be “Saturday Night in Hanoi.” Set in 2019, the poem describes how “couples tango in the streets” and “the three-strand beards of other old men.” The war dislocated the speaker, but returning to Vietnam enabled him to find a new grounding: “This is more home than home because long ago/ it broke me then gentled the pieces back into light.” In a book that wrestles with impending death, this poem’s ending offers a path toward peace and resolution:
There are lovers on motorbikes and the smells of a thousand meals.
I breathe it all in. I could die here and be free.
I peel a green orange and find gold.
I hear echoes of other poets in this section, too, from phrases of Yusef Komunyakaa and Robert Bly, two other poets who wrote about the war, to Robert Frost, whose chestnut, “The Road Not Taken,” reverberates in Anderson’s “Rewind.” In “Rewind,” the speaker narrates in reverse the actions that led to a squad-mate’s death. The
smell of cordite
gives way to the funky smell of rice paddies
and “three bullets retrieve themselves from his lung.” The poem continues rewinding back through time until the speaker imagines the squad leader deciding to take an alternate trail, and concluding, “How that would have made all the difference.”
“Homage,” the third section, recognizes poets more directly, with poems appreciating ancient Chinese poets, as well other poets (Sappho, Mahmoud Darwish), and concluding with poems on two American poets, James Tate and John Ashbery. The two poems on Ashbery, “John Ashbery Spoke From a Tree” and “John Ashbery Meets Tu Fu in the Bardo,” give a glimpse into Anderson’s aesthetic preferences. In these, the deceased Ashbery, a poet of “loose-footed play” while alive, is, in death, more “rooted.” In the latter poem, Tu Fu kindly takes Ashbery’s hand “in this dark” of the afterlife. In contrasting these two fundamentally different poets, the implication is that the Chinese historian-poet is more adept at negotiating serious subjects, like death, than the free-wheeling Ashbery.
In the book’s final poem, “Age is Asking Me to Give Up Love,” Anderson turns to a poet to help confront love’s complexity. “Might be easier if love gave me up,” it begins,
It won’t, nor has it sublimated
into something holy.
After the speaker expresses his passion for a lover, he invokes the poet Hafiz, asking to be told once again,
how all the love we feel
however unrequited or lost
is gathered somewhere in a vat of honey.
Poets, and poetry, it seems, have helped Anderson navigate his struggles. These poems can help us navigate ours. Anderson’s words have an edge, a playfulness, and a wisdom. They linger.