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Poetry Review: Martha Serpas' "The Diener"

05/15/2015 03:21 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

The Diener, Martha Serpas
LSU Press, 2015, 978-0-0871-5922-4, $17.95

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The best poets concede to uncertainty and are thereby able to write beyond the confines of knowing towards the ineffable, the sublime. 2015-05-14-1431626741-9491645-thediener.jpg
It is in fashion for poets to proclaim this lack of surety, but a different game altogether to abandon the didactic and pitch pen-first into the void. Doing so takes courage and faith, two things Martha Serpas has in abundance. Throughout her recently released third collection, The Diener, Serpas puts her convictions (even this aforementioned faith) on trial, knowing only that there is no resolution to be had. So what's the point? Beauty, and one of the finest collections you'll read this year.

There is a directness and urgent intimacy to The Diener that lend it a certain otherness. Lyric depictions of landscape are leveraged into departures of direct and poignant address. In "Betsy", a poem concerning the eponymous hurricane in the year of her birth, Serpas pulls away from her meditation mid-poem to utter: God , how I want to tell you this story! Yet, strangely, nothing is withheld, that line does tell the story--of aloneness; of the impossibility of full disclosure beyond the walls of sense and language. Later in the book, the desperation to push through these walls becomes more pronounced. In "Crossing" Serpas implores: Friends: Don't seal me in a marble card catalog / to which no borrowers come. "Breakfast at Starbucks with Egret" begins: Don't think less of me, Reader. Great skill, and the earnestness of Serpas' searching enable these addresses to not only work, but amplify the immediacy of the collection. For Serpas, such immediacy is necessary. The wetlands of her native Louisiana--where many of these poems are set--are disappearing rapidly due to pollution, oil and natural gas extraction in the Gulf, and continued misuse. As a result, there is an artfully tempered frustration behind "The Diener". In "Ten Fathom Ledge":

Don't be fooled:

The Gulf is not a polished cruiser
       or a V-hull on the dock.

The Gulf
       is not a flatiron idling
between sets of bowing waves.

In "Insufficient, Ineligible Loss":

The soft earth between my ribs
       is subsiding.
Nothing grows there.

The strong River carries sewage
       nitrates, sadness
       from thirty-one states.

Memory kills the grass.
       Consciousness kills the fish.

The diminishment of these wetlands seems also to have heightened Serpas' attentiveness to the ephemeral. Like the wetlands, Serpas knows we too will disappear; that the death necessary for regeneration is our own. The Diener makes one wonder if the suffering both endured and inflicted warrants our renewal; some renewal. Will our bodies break down to become trees chopped for the paper upon which a poem is written? Will we simply become what the living ravage and then aim to again make beautiful? Is that how the circle repeats or finally closes? And, what is the soul? This last question feels central to The Diener. Serpas, who holds a degree from Yale Divinity School, has served as a hospital trauma chaplain since 2006 and presumably given much counsel on the matter. A question from "Sunshine Bridge" feels close to an answer:

"...Who wouldn't want to be a shining

Hill on a bridge, a bridge to the east of nowhere,
       right at the center of the vanishing

Of every end and start, of mileage unthreading,
       of exits, of the mind's highest point?"

Or perhaps the soul is a boy rising above his grieving parents; or the poet's consciousness that perceives him:

And she sees the boy rise on invisible scapulars,

already looking at the old couple as if they were strangers
       and at the woman holding their hands, she
an envelope's torn seal blown back behind the door.

            ("Arrow Boy")

The poems that chronicle Serpas' experience in the trauma ward are woven with questions of faith, loss, and empathy. Maybe more interestingly though, they raise this question: Who counsels the counselor? Where does the agent of solace turn when she, herself, is in need of it? The answer, for Serpas, seems to be spirituality and poetry. The Diener reminds us that the two can hardly be separate.

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*You can listen to Martha Serpas read & discuss her poetry here.
**You can purchase "The Diener" here.