When the poet Marie Borroff GRD ’56 was an undergraduate, she studied verse with Norman Maclean, the author of “A River Runs through It.” Sitting in his office, she watched as the ash from his cigarette dangled then fell on the page. He would sweep the ashes from the page with his hand, all she wanted was to cup those ashes up in her hands and take them home with her.
I like to collect things, too — not ash from a cigarette but the notes passed in class, the teeth lost in childhood, the occasional letter from a friend. Collecting is an act of memory and love and sometimes loss: It preserves what has come but soon goes. Bottle caps and ticket stubs are not the only reminders. Those moments, quick to vanish, are also the ones collected in verse.
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I have been caught in flagrante collecto — writing out a line from a book, cutting a poem from the New Yorker. Clipped from the page, a poem could be held in the hand, like a feather. It could be recalled, if memorized. I loved its smallness but marveled at its weight, as if the poet draws meaning from the line as a magician draws quarters from children’s ears. I admired such sleight of hand.
I owe this habit to my mother, who read “Sonnets from the Portuguese” to me before bed, her finger beneath the words, her hair wet from the shower. I listened, my head on her shoulder, my mind on soap. I liked this volume best, and no wonder: At six or seven, everything is new and quite extraordinary — as new and extraordinary as falling in love with Robert Browning must have seemed to Elizabeth Barrett.
When my mother’s mother died, we took other volumes from the shelves. She claimed Thomas. I took Plath. From The Collected Poems, I learned that through verse we not only remember ourselves but recognize our connections to others. I had never experienced what Plath experienced (“What a thrill — my thumb instead of an onion”). But I felt as she felt, and it elated me, as an antiquarian of pickle jars is elated to find another collection of Pick Pack and Peter Piper. I had found a fellow collector.
I have since found others. At one time, I loved Elizabeth Bishop; at another, Jane Kenyon. Now, as a senior, it is Deborah Digges. I first read her poems after she had died. She had climbed the steps of the football stadium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst last spring. It was a Friday afternoon, and in the field below, the lacrosse team ran drills. Perhaps they looked up at the orange flags, whipping against the goal posts, and saw her, climbing. At the top, she jumped.
Digges grew up on a farm in Missouri, and her poetry is full of those observations that come from rural life: the slant of the sun in winter, the way it makes the ice look, the hiss of the fire as it goes out. She wrote about barns and births and frost. Her words are simple. She is a difficult poet, but an appropriate one, for the past months have been difficult: three deaths, and the end of four years.
Several months before she died, Digges gave a reading at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, Calif. She had the look of an ordinary woman. She wore a white turtleneck and a green velvet jacket, which fell below her waist. Her hair was thin and red, probably dyed. She was the kind of woman, who had been slender once, but whose body had been given over to the bearing of children.
She was not an impressive reader: She did not have the deep and mournful voice of Sylvia Plath, the measured pronunciation of Robert Lowell. She spoke like an actress in a community play, timid and almost fearful, her hands beneath her chin, her fingers laced. She did not pause between poems, and stumbled once: “Once I asked myself,” she faltered, sucking in air, “when was I happy?”
At the end of the poem, the answer is given, in an image of herself, an image of her collecting, as Marie Borroff collected, as, perhaps, we all collect:
in a doorway, a broom in my hand,
sweeping out beach sand, salt, soot,
pollen and pine needles, the last December leaves,
and mud wasps, moths, flies crushed to wafers,
and spring’s first seed husks,
and then the final tufts like down, and red bud petals
like autumn leaves — so many petals