Saturday, March 04, 2006



TRANSITORY by Jane Augustine
(Spuyten Duyvil, New York City, 2002)

Spacing. Space

Space. Pace.

Pacing as suggested by line breaks, caesuras and punctuation marks that, in the case of Jane Augustine’s TRANSITORY, aid the reader to continue reading past grief.

Break down once. Okay, more than once.

That’s okay--embedded in the poems are spaces in which the overwhelmed reader can pause, pause to grieve, pause to consider, and from there move onward.

TRANSITORY is Augustine’s meditation over her daughter-in-law’s death at age 20. Equally significant for what TRANSITORY shares, Michelle was a girl who met the poet’s son, Tom, just in time: “He badly needed someone to love him, appreciate, shore him up. This time he was lucky. Her funny enthusiastic adoration of him, her energy and determination to succeed, these were overwhelming. How could there not be a good outcome?”

But then the poem bears news of a world as it tilts and begins to crack:

“Michelle is very sick--
........cancer of the colon--

........they operated--cut some away
................but it’s--it’s
........................completely incurable, they say--

It’s almost petty to pause to note the particular effectiveness of that line “but it’s--it’s” with its M-dash-facilitated stutter. (Due to blogger format, M-dashes are presented as double dashes.) I note it because the parent is also a poet who’s clearly mastered her craft. And on each of the M-dashes I paused my read for relief, before going on to learn of the son’s “wish to have been kinder, steadier,/ not a junkie to add to her pain.”

Is not regret--its acid--among the most harrowing of feelings?

You, Reader, can imagine the rest of the story without me having to quote more excerpts. It’s not as if reading all of the poems in the book would ever reveal the “total story.” How, for instance, the story of Michelle--Michelle is her name--is logically linked to, say, the Gulf War. From a “Three Day Weekend”:

Warriors say, “The War is going as expected.”
A mother writes a son--let’s talk.
Cold wind.
Tick of a dry leaf
like a loosened safety catch.

In “Epilogue: the Ghosts of Memory,” Augustine asks,

“If there were release, an antidote, however momentary, to stand against suffering and death, could it be the poem,

some blunt-edged saying of the unsayable, these long-lined transient streamers in the wind?

In Augustine’s hands, deft enough to write poems that manifest light--its searing illuminations--she shows how poetry can “stand against suffering and death.” For TRANSITORY is about suffering and death but in a way--and a path--that clarifies yet again the importance for a poet to “cultivate vast mind.”

For such a “vast mind,” details matter. In “A Tomb For Michelle,” the poet shares the incident at the hospice when Michelle’s family first learns of her disease (and in reading about it, the reader might need the relief offered by the pauses in reading as facilitated by the M-dashes):

Evening: her father from Houston and cousins fill the room with their dark shapes, heads surrounding the bed. They crowd flowers--daisies, yellow chrysanthemums--onto the corner chest, the table, the small shrine with its candles and crucifix. They talk with her, turn away weepy-eyed. She wakes up. Her voice is strong, speaking in Vietnamese, now telling them--their eyes tell them--she is sick. She hadn’t told them before. We don’t know what she tells them now; this Our Lady of Good Counsel Free Cancer home. Now they know--something. She is chattering as if--as if--

A dish of sherbet melts untouched under the chrysanthemum leaves. She is past eating. Her father in his gray suit comes out into the hall and holds his handkerchief to his eyes.

And a “vast mind” matters, too, to be able to situate an individual within the vastness that is history. Michelle, born Phuong Vu, was a child survivor of the war in Vietnam. And at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., the poet’s gaze drops from the wall of names to “where foot-scuffed dust met verge of grass. No Michelle Vu among the 55,000 // ghostnames written on the wall.”

........................................What of their dead?
........Have they a shrine in Saigon draped in orange for the death agent?

........It’s still in the soil, grows tainted vegetables and mutilates the fetus in the womb--

Michelle is alive in these pages of Augustine’s poetry--there is that much. That much. In “Notes For a Tombstone,” Augustine asks: “What evidence, however, proves/ that continuity prevails,/ that dying and being born/ are in one package?” TRANSITORY shows Michelle living past death,

The break--was it
umbilical? I won’t sever.
I hold her in mind

(from “They Journey to Lourdes”)

and through poetry this gift can be shared now with others, poetry readers--enabling Michelle’s life to be extended through, indeed, the eternity of poetry’s existence.

And the son, Tom, who became husband who became widower? From “Tom Says Goodbye to the Apartment at 761 North Snelling, Saint Paul,”--

The door closes. He turns the key
in the lock. He walks down
the twenty-two steep wooden stairs
as he’d carried her wheelchair
and her black-robed misshapen
dying self watching him.
Silent eyes.
He gives the key to the landlady
in the hardware store
as he’d lifted the casket
into the hearse. Gets into
his dark red car,
packed with his life’s remnants,
shuts the door,
because there is no choice--
another journey.

As I write this review, my father is suffering from cancer. My younger brother died a few months ago at age 43; he didn’t die from drugs as he’d been clean for nearly 2 decades, but, once, he did have a drug problem that wreaked havoc on my parents. I have not been able to address either in my own poems. With TRANSITORY, I am more than glad to see another poet show how such topics may be addressed without being reductive as regards grief. I am not just glad but relieved. For if a poet would have written poems on these matters without the benefit of a “vast mind” which depends so much, I believe, on compassion, I would have loathed the existence of this poem, this book, and for that long moment detested my avocation. Instead, Augustine affirms poetry’s redemptive powers--its space filled with how lucidity may be guided by a warm, loving light.


Eileen Tabios has released 10 poetry collections, a collection of art essays and a short story book. She also edited/co-edited five books of poetry, fiction and essays. In 2006, she releases a new poetry collection, The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Vol. I (xPressed, Espoo). She performs the poetics blog “The Chatelaine’s Poetics” while steering Meritage Press. More of her e-presence here and here.


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