Cleared for Landing
In her earlier collections, St. Ann’s Gut and The Myth of a Woman’s Fist, Ann Darr established herself as a poet of enviable gifts. Her range is wide, from short poems which seem to arise from fleeting impressions, to long poems which grow from long meditation on hard matters, some of them too painful to be handled by any but the most strongminded of poets.
Like many other poets in recent years, Darr has gone from a commercial publisher to a small press. Her first two books were published by William Morrow; Cleared for Landing is published by Dryad Press, an energetic small publisher. The particular reasons for this do not much matter. Whether Morrow had a chance at this book and missed it, or whether Darr simply began to see the disadvantages of placing poetry with large companies whose policy is that poems do not sell, she has found in Dryad Press a publisher willing to present her poems in a handsome format, and to stand by the book until it is sold out. Increasingly, established poets as well as relative beginners find in the small presses a hospitality to their work which the commercial publishers could not have mustered even in the best of times.
This collection takes its title from “Cleared for Approach, Cleared for Landing,” a long and harrowing poem which makes up the book’s fifth and final section. But the title resonates as well throughout the first four sections; the phrase comes to be a metaphor for all sorts of clearings and landings. The ten poems in the first section, “What Shall We Say to Our Sister?,” are various in tone, but most of them hover successfully between some private event—their source—and full disclosure. “Dear James Wright,” for example, in the form of a note to that poet, touches upon a private matter, and goes on to something even more private, yet more interesting and haunting. Halfway through the poem, the speaker says “I am glad/you are on the wagon. Lengthening/your life is a good idea.” Then there is a recollection of having hidden a wagon beside a river before going out in a canoe; the wagon disappears, because thievery turns up in the countryside as well as the city. Then the poem turns back, but more deeply, on the old cliché for giving up drink:
but you know about rivers—the goddamned ever-flowingjunk-clogged rivers flowinginside and out. If I can everfind another wagon I ought toclimb on. All my braincellsare washing downstream.
The mystery in this small poem is a result of the skill, not only with which the phrase “on the wagon” is worked until its power is renewed, but also the skill which keeps the reader from knowing for certain whether the wagon was stolen by a person or by rising water. Things wash downstream in either case, and we are left at last with those few essentials which we might seem to take with us when we die.
This view is hauntingly presented in “It Is the Breathing,” a beautiful short poem about the death of an old woman. Here again, the private aspects of the experience are withheld: we do not know anything about the old woman’s relationship to the poet or to the speaker of the poem; it is clear only that the relationship matters. In the first stanza, the speaker and the old woman are placed far apart:
Nine hundred miles away I hear the breathing.Under the oxygen, the little flippety doormoves open and shut, open and shut.It is the breathing that keeps her aliveand somewhere under the lonely tick of the clockthe air comes on like muffling comforters.
The economy and power of this stanza are worth trying to explain. There is intrinsic force in the apparent subject matter, as it is presented in the first and fourth lines, flat and expository in tone. But the language is equal to the subject: “the little flippety door” is a frightening image, everything coming down, at last, to a trivial mechanism; and the oxymoronic “muffling comforters” suggest that, if the breathing “keeps her alive,” the air will finally smother her.
The woman’s age is mentioned in the second stanza:
She is standing at the windowgasping for air she breathed in90 years ago. She hears the windin her ears but the leaves hang limp.They are calling her to come over, come over.
The echo of a childhood game leads into another recollection, which swims up, dreamlike, with such particularity that a manufacturer’s name is included; in a poem of such vagueness about certain facts, this specificity is brilliantly placed:
She steps out the window onto the keyboardof the old Knabe grand. Its...
(The entire section is 2175 words.)