To read Maggie Anderson’s poetry is to appreciate her sense of the poet as illuminator of small things and to understand the unforced grace of moments in extraordinarily ordinary lives. Anderson’s poetry—informed by her love of the natural wonder of rural West Virginia and the determined strength of its people—celebrates how the poet’s alert and open eye can trigger the epiphany that ultimately becomes the sculpted language of a poem. The language in her poems is carefully worked and elegantly understated, to the point where it seems conversational, an effect that belies the subtle manipulations of phrasing that create Anderson’s inviting sound (she has been deeply influenced by music).
With Cold Comfort, Anderson’s third volume of poetry, she defined herself as a writer confident in both her vision and her craft. Her poetry gives voice to those quiet moments when the natural world or the everyday routine suddenly, unexpectedly, speaks to the heart. These are poems about family dinners, a grandmother doing laundry, a walk in a cemetery, and the cobalt sky that frames the forbidding West Virginia hills. It is the poet, as shaper of lines, who rescues such mundane moments from obscurity. In “The Thing You Must Remember,” for example, Anderson creates a sonnet on a child in a school art class creating a clay dog. When the dog does not survive the process of its own creation and is found in shards in the kiln, Anderson, with grace and compassion, sees in the experience a cautionary lesson about the fragility of beauty and the profound frustration of artists who can never quite realize their visions. She upholds, however, the worthiness of the effort. The last image is of the art teacher, coaxing and encouraging, who understands that with art, the effort justifies and sustains.
In the poignant “Heart Fire,” Anderson struggles to understand the suicide of a friend’s son. Here, memory accommodates such emotional devastation by fashioning a kind of refuge-space where recollection keeps the dead alive and not alone. Drawing on the richly suggestive image of the poet driving across a Pittsburgh bridge and seeing the city lights flicker on, defiant against the descent of the autumn night, Anderson uses the juxtaposition of dark and light, cold and warmth, to offer the fragile comfort of memory in the face of such catastrophic moments as a son’s suicide. That elegiac mood dominates the centerpiece effort of Cold Comfort, “In Singing...
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