Review by Lisa C. Taylor
Kelli Russell Agodon’s brilliant new collection of poetry, Dialogue with Rising Tides elevates anxiety to a level of redemption. The collection is divided into five sections: Scarweather, Black Deep, Overfalls, Shambles, and Relief. Reverence for the coast unifies these poems. She identifies reasons for optimism in the daily rhythms of the sea, even with rising tides and the continuous menace of outside forces. From familial trauma to alarm about the state of the country and world, her language pivots seamlessly from conversational to lyric. A master at wringing emotion from landscape and mundane daily encounters, Kelli Russell Agodon invites our better selves to emerge as she acknowledges her own perceived and actual human flaws.
In the poem, ‘I Don’t Own Anxiety but I Borrow it Regularly,” she says of mortality. “Tell me a story where no one dies.” (12) and later, “We cannot predict our tragedies.” If there is a unifying theme to the collection, the author said it best in the lines: “the moment you walk out the door/and exist in the darkness/announce to the heavens that you’re still alive.” (12). It takes moxie and a willingness not just to honor but to celebrate survival amid suffocating loss. The senseless ways people die, and the collective grief of the planet, prompt a world view that is inclusive, introspective, and reverent of the symmetry in nature, even with the threat of extinction and global warming.
In the Breaksea section, loss becomes universal as well as personal. The poem, “At Times My Body Leans Toward Loss,” expresses grief as a default for many of us. “Like the woman who drove to work crying in her car–/when I saw her, she waved, a reflection in the glass.” (25). In the poem, “To Have and Have Not,” the poet revisits her family history of suicide. “For a long time I never knew taking one’s life/was a major our family excelled at.” (30). The last line of this poem particularly moved me, …” we keep on caring for our ghosts.” (31). It isn’t just relatives lost to suicide, it’s the earth, lost possibilities, and relationships that wound more than nourish.
In the section called Black Deep, I loved the poem, “After Discovering My Husband Bought a Handgun.”
You’re not the first man
to believe betrayal is beautiful.
You promised me nothing
and gun was your passport
your new itinerary
said gun is the lock we never had
on our doors. (40)
Our national obsession with firearms made this poem particularly resonant. In her restrained way, Kelli Russell Agodon challenges the illusion of protection offered by guns, and the myth that owning them will have an impact on the current epidemic of violence. The play of sexual imagery with the gun as lover also speaks to the ways in which masculinity has been co-opted for commercial purpose, to sell fast cars, guns, motorcycles, and even political candidates.
In the Overfalls section, I related to the poem Love Waltz with Fireworks. Falling in love with the varied aspects of ordinary life goes along with being an acute observer.
Seventeen minutes ago, I was in love
with the cashier and a cinnamon pull-apart,
seven minutes before that it was a gray-
haired man in argyle socks, a woman
dancing outside the bakery holding
a cigarette and a broken umbrella… (52)
And later in the poem:
…I walk over to him and
place my hand on his shoulder, lean in close
and whisper, I love your argyle socks,
and he grabs my hand,
the way a memory holds tight in the smallest
corner. He smiles and says,
I always hope someone will notice. (53)
Kelli Russell Agodon notices. She’s sitting in the corner of the bakery watching and remembering that “I was wrong about desire—that Earth, while messy, /had the best sex and wi-fi.” (78).
In dire times, we need poetry to lay a hand on our shoulder, point out the waxing moon, or as she writes in the poem, What I Call Erosion in the final section of the collection: …” When the planet says, This is impossible/ the otter responds, Only if you believe it. (81).
Kelli Russell Agodon is the cofounder of Two Sylvias Press as well as co-director of Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women. She has been guest faculty and a guest speaker for several universities and MFA programs and currently is on the faculty for Pacific Lutheran University’s MFA program. Agodon lives in a sleepy seaside town in Washington State and is an avid paddleboarder and hiker. She has three other collections of poetry.
Dialogues with Rising Tides by Kelli Russell Agodon
Copper Canyon Press, 2021
$16.00 (paper) ISBN 978-1-55659-615-5
Lisa C. Taylor is the author of four collections of poetry and two collections of short fiction, most recently, Impossibly Small Spaces (2018). She was awarded the Hugo House New Works Fiction Award in 2015. A new collection of her poetry will be published in May of 2022.