In after that, Kathleen Aguero’s most recent book of poems (Tiger Bark Press, 2013), the speakers—and they are varied—come up against hard irrevocables and the subsequent aftermath of “after that” in which the door to all future possibilities shuts as unequivocally as the door to Dickinson’s soul choosing its own society, and as hard the final mute in the book’s title.
The book opens with Aubade and introduces us to the landscape of Section I: “Pearl gray, blue gray/the mauve tinged gray east,” seems, at first, a traditional song, praising dawn as a blank page of sky onto which the day’s scenarios have yet to be written, plucked from “The air, rich and heavy with holding,” infinite with possibilities. Yet, unlike pop psychologies, which attempt, by a thin string of logic, to tether themselves to quantum physics and posit that the trajectory of one’s fate is launched by free choice, the poem soon informs us Aguero’s speakers will have no such authorial autonomy.
What are disguised as choices are in fact imperatives. “Soon imperatives will drop down before us—/ go, choose, do—”. No, the dawn of this poem is not an open vista splayed across the sky, but a constricted landscape, containing limited possibilities; “but now the glass is fogged—/gray pause, muffled—/ our futures swirl in a jar,” futures defined by the irrevocable impact of others on our lives and of our own intractable natures.
Helplessly, an adult daughter witnesses her once formidably competent—“The General we called her”—elderly mother’s harrowing slide into full blown dementia; “When she chews the napkin mistaking it for an hors d’oeuvre, /when she eats the teabag that rests by the side of her cup.” By the time her mother dies, she is the stranger who would “be gone for weeks/and return smelling of cigarettes” and “wouldn’t eat anything white, /hid money in the refrigerator, /wore five pair of underwear at once,” and has long since stopped recognizing her family. So rather than comforting, final words of closure from her mother’s mouth, the essentially abandoned, orphaned daughter is left looking into the void of her mother’s “Mouth/dark sea cave.”
In “That Autumn,” a friend struggles to find the right gestures to pay homage to deceased loved ones, and to comfort the bereaved, but can only offer what she can do/does “a splatter of toothpaste, stray hair/in the tub. You don’t want to clean/and erase them, but what else are you going to do?”
A mother’s impotence is keenly felt when to the questions
“What can you say to a boy
whose best friend decided life
is a sucker’s game and left him to play it alone. To the girl
whose mother went in for a check-up
and never came home? To your son’s friend,
who, at nineteen, delivers his father’s eulogy
as if he’d been doing it all his life?”
she can only answer: “You hand them silence/wrapped in your arms. /You bring them a meal.”
In “Hard Work,” we see the speaker acknowledge/bend to the fact of these irrevocables, but she will not surrender to them, but rather “I bow my head to the hard work of hope.” She bows to the hope that out of these heartbreaks, there must be a redeeming message, a payoff to this “dour blessing.” In “Late Afternoon,” which closes the first section and provides a bookend to the first poem, the speaker intimates that there may be glimmer of hope, a respite, in the afternoon where “…Birds sing/as if it were morning, the whole gone day/beginning again.”
However it isn’t until Section II of the book that Aguero, with ingenious wit, reveals the speaker’s inner, tentative turn to herself. Against the backdrop of “after that” the subject of these delightful poems, Nancy Drew, the heroine/role model of the speaker’s girlhood, is perceived anew. In “Suppose,” the speaker’s problems which once could be answered by asking What Would Nancy Do? have, in her adult years, become direr, and clearly out of Nancy’s league:
Among my son’s discarded
stuffed animals, a gun.
Fifteen-years old he wants
gold chains, a reputation.
His former babysitter in the headlines,
car wrapped around a tree,
her boyfriend dead
in the passenger seat.
Nancy, talk to me now.
It becomes clear to the speaker that iconic Nancy, who formerly used her wiles, wealth, good looks and wit to outsmart any irrevocable in her path is as trapped in the bubble of her myth as the speaker is in the jar in the poem “Aubade.” “Nancy’s sick of being competent/but can’t quit because someone else/made her up and she still earns them money…That one sold well, so they write her into another.”
Rather than with disappointment, it is with relief and a sense of freedom that the speaker understands that Nancy’s life as well as her own has been authored by others; yet within the prison of the irrevocable she is paradoxically free to be the poet she is, to contemplate the mysteries of the non-human, “the code of the aurora borealis, /the sound of stone, the color of air, the vast and” the blessedly “clueless sky.”
Reviewed by Nancy Mitchell