When one considers the literal rising tides of our oceans as the backdrop of metaphorical tides of political and social turmoil, it is easy to see that there are many difficult conversations to be had, and Kelli Russell Agodon doesn’t shy away from these torrid waters. Delving into topics ranging from the encompassing (climate change) to the quotidian (visiting a bakery), Agodon’s fourth collection, Dialogues with Rising Tides (Copper Canyon Press, 2021), serves as a beacon of hope for readers treading through modern times.
Featuring a photo of a buoy as the cover art, (La bouée by René Maltête), Dialogues with Rising Tides is divided into seven sections, “Cross Rip,” “Breaksea,” “Scarweather,” “Black Deep,” “Overfalls,” “Shambles,” and “Relief,” each named after lightvessels (essentially, floating lighthouses). Through these purposeful features in design and structure, the collection is cognizant of its own role as a source of encouragement. These are not merely words to read and forget, these are words to cling to and hold tightly. As poet Diane Seuss says, “This is the book I need right here, right now, as the fires burn and the tides rise.”
Beginning the collection with one of her most well-known poems, “Hunger,” which was first published in 2017 as the American Academy of Poetry’s “Poem-a-Day,” the tone is established for the collection. “Hunger” uses the idea of dog vs. coyote as a metaphor for love and life, beginning: “If we never have enough love, we have more than most,” meaning – to have any love at all is to be lucky. The speaker goes on to describe bringing a coyote home as a pet, but the new pet eats the narrator’s chickens, ducks, and even cat. Sometimes what should bring us joy is what causes us harm. It can be difficult to make sense of this twist of fate. These types of traumas are the impetus for many people to read or write poetry. The speaker reflects, “We are all trying to change/what we fear into something beautiful.” In this one line, Agodon captures what her collection accomplishes – turning the chaos of the last decade into rapturous words.
Each poem in Dialogues with Rising Tides continues with this meditation of juxtapositions. Tackling ideals versus reality in “I Don’t Own Anxiety, but I Borrow It Regularly,” the narrator is looking for a saint to save them, but concludes that in the end, we must save ourselves through our own bravery:
and maybe your saint is a streetlight
or maybe the sea, or maybe
it’s the moment you walk out the door
and exist in the darkness,
announce to the heavens that you’re still alive.“I Don’t Own Anxiety, but I Borrow It Regularly”
Agodon’s use of second person perspective as well as space in the poem pulls the reader into a seeming stream of consciousness. We are along for the journey, working with the speaker through anxiety and arriving at the end equally as triumphant.
Turning anxiety or confusion into resolution is something poet Gregory Orr touches on in his book, A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry (W.W. Norton, 2018). Orr asserts that “Poetry is compelling in a crisis not just because it is concise and immediate, but also because it is superbly designed to handle both aspects of experience: the reality of disorder and the self’s need for some kind of order.” Throughout Dialogues with Rising Tides, Agodon does this masterfully – she uses form to establish order. The thoughts of each poem often feel as though they are being worked through in real-time. The reader is left feeling as though they are discovering these ideas along with the narrator, but the structure of each piece feels assured, showing that Agodon is adroit with her use of form. The reader is pulled into intimate situations with the narrator, but the foundations established in each poem create a safe space for this exploration.
This idea holds true even in the confines of a gynecologist’s exam room in “Getting an IUD on the Day of 45’s Inauguration.” Containing what feels like fused tercets in stepped line breaks, the poem begins by centering itself with the speaker’s body:
My body is a flag across the table.
I am spreading my legs because
this is what women do. My body
isn’t sure it wants to
carry this, but my body has been bleeding
for two months, a period of patriotism
though my colors run.“Getting an IUD on the Day of 45’s Inauguration”
After establishing this space, the poem transports both narrator and reader. “From above, what you see are three women…The one in a paper / gown is a flag.” We are now with the speaker looking at the body from an omniscient perspective, as though we are looking down during a near-death experience. The flag metaphor is emphasized repeatedly in the poem, ensuring the reader views the woman as symbolic of a country. Body and country are both bleeding. The poem ends with the speaker’s reassurance, “My body is a ragged flag / worn but still flying.” Though the body and political climate are in a disordered state, Agodon finds an orderly form and an optimistic tone to push the reader through. The ending of this poem is a perfect demonstration how Agodon’s poems call back to lightvessels in a dark ocean. The poems pull us close and hold us above water despite what is happening in the world outside the words.
After learning a little about Agodon, it’s no wonder she is so considerate of the reader. There is much talk in the writing world these days about ‘literary citizenship,’ and Agodon, herself, could be described as an exemplary literary citizen. She co-founded Two Sylvias Press with Annette Spaulding-Convy, based upon “the belief that great writing is good for the world.” She is the codirector of Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women. She also teaches new generations of poets through workshops and as faculty, and she uses her online presence to share not only her own work, but poems from other poets. Her sensitivity and generosity shine through in everything she touches, so it comes as no surprise to those familiar with Agodon that Dialogues with Rising Tides finds inspiration and conversation with a wide variety of voices.
Notes at the end of the collection reveal the vast array of people Agodon considered as she was writing these poems. She dedicates the aforementioned poem (“Getting an IUD on the day of 45’s Inauguration”) to poet Jenn Givhan. Other poets and their poems are additionally mentioned as catalysts of inspiration: Diane Seuss, Mary Peelen, Catherine Barnett, and Ellen Bass. Non-poets also had some formative influence, including spiritual guru Ram Dass and actress Carrie Fisher. Agodon found use of quotes or titles from Anne Section, Mary Reufle, and Sylvia Plath (one of two Sylvias who inspired the name of Two Sylvias Press). She even cites Old English as the source for the title “Wintercearig Waltz,” (wintercearig being Old English for “winter sorrow”). We are shown that no poem is an island – words travel through centuries of thought, bouncing and echoing across pages. While it is nearly certain that poets are influenced by a plethora of people and ideas, Agodon has shown a kindness to the reader in revealing the rich depth of influences which abound throughout the poems in this particular collection.
One writer who is referenced twice is Zelda Fitzgerald, who was the inspiration behind two titles, one of which is the closing poem, “Thank You for Saving Me, Someday I’ll Save You Too.” This poem details a relationship gone adrift in which one partner realizes the couple is beyond saving: “…he said, You need to get the fuck out of here, / just before the room went up in flames.” The pulse of this poem stays true to the sentiment of the collection – we (the narrator references the collective and thus brings readers into this final piece) are in a difficult place, but we find a way out. In an ode to the resilience of self and nature, the poem ends:
…But when the tides
kept rising and the fires burned, we learned the best advice
did not come from God or a guidebook,
the best advice sang hopeful from the lost
sparrow on the pine beam, struggling but able
to fly, wingbeats of Morse code: Follow me into the light
..-. — .-.. .-.. — .– /. — . /. .. -. – — /. – …. . / .-.. .. –. …. –“Thank You for Saving Me, Someday I’ll Save You Too”
The poem ends with morse code for the imperative from the wings of a sparrow. It’s as though the narrator is showing us the power in following inspiration. What catches your eye? Follow that, and you will find the metaphorical light.
Just as Agodon follows inspiration to guide her poetry, just as she finds ways to inspire other writers, she ends Dialogues with Rising Tides with this: the gift of hope. The collective ‘we’ will find ways to keep our heads above water. After clinging to the pages of this book, it is easier to believe goodness exists in this world. Thank you, Kelli Russell Agodon, for tossing a buoy into the ocean of these tumultuous times and showing us how to save ourselves.
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