Book Review: Dialogue with Rising Tides

Dialogues with Rising Tides
by Kelli Russell Agodon

Copper Canyon Press, 2021

Cover art: René Maltête, La bouée

What a sad and lovely book. The cover shows a hand rising up through a lifebuoy, in a cry for help that is somehow also victorious and darkly funny. I can save myself, the hand could be suggesting, through this perfect, centered placement in this life saver, this excellent photograph, this book itself. And the poet does! In Dialogues with Rising Tides, Kelli Russell Agodon rises gleaming from the deep.

There are other obvious cries for help—a poem titled “SOS,” a line of Morse code. “SOS” is a cry for help for America, for the world in crisis from climate change, “wildly waving our distress flag.” The Morse code comes through the wingbeats of a sparrow, and is ultimately a message of hope. These poems witness disaster and carry trauma and make survival a true triumph.

Titles and lines tell the personal story: “Everyone is Acting as If We’re Not Temporary, and I Am Falling Apart in the Privacy of My Own Home” and “I wish I didn’t / say how much I hurt on social media.” I’ve seen that sentiment on social media from many people, so this poem will surely connect with many readers! And the next poem’s long title begins “When My Therapist Tells Me My Father’s Trauma Has Been Transferred to Me,” telling us of that sad, fated curse:

          She tells me the reason I wake up
               screaming is because
     no one ever dealt with that pain and now
          I wear it like a silver blanket
               and each night I wrap myself
     in suffering instead of sheets—

But there is a way through, and a way out, and these poems always find it. Another title—“How Damage Can Lead to Poetry”—tells us how, without sparing anyone the damage, the family history of death and suicide. Yet “the thought / of brokenness” lives side by side with the satisfying phrase “jacket pocket” and the fact of having “a poem in my jacket / pocket” as well as the miracle of growing up “mostly, / somewhat, okay.”

“Love Waltz with Fireworks” made me smile, and not just because I was re-reading it around the 4th of July, with actual fireworks going off in my neighborhood. I connected with the speaker’s decision to speak to an old man, even though “in this world we’ve been taught to keep / our emotions tight,” because I’d just done the same thing in the library, engage an elderly man in conversation because I sensed he needed to talk to someone…. Here, a poem affirmed that impulse, love, connection, attentiveness. And I felt sheer joy and delight in “Queen Me,” a poem of chess and checkers and toppling the patriarchy!

These poems, honest and often sad, are also full of word play and the pleasure of language itself. I hear it in the poem “At a Cocktail Party, I Am Given a Drink called, Life is Fleeting and the Olive is Short-lived,” in lines like

                           it’s a tumble
     over the horizontal misunderstanding

     of lying down in a bed of pleasure, leisure,
     a bed of please and release, of sure, and plea,

     and maybe some ease here.

It’s as if at any moment the hand is rising up through the lifebuoy, saying, “Here I am! You can save me if you want, easily, please do, it’s your job, but I’m also doing mine! And I’ll save myself if I have to!”

“To Have and Have Not” begins, “As a child I believed suicide only happened / to the Hemingways.” Then the speaker learns about her own family history:

     For a long time, I never knew taking one’s life
     was a major our family excelled at.

     A degree in suicide? We swallowed it, reloaded,
     a master’s degree in dying.

As dark as it is, you see the playfulness in the poem, the way it takes on the legacy, ready to reject it:

     But we are not the Hemingways—I say as I slip

     an orchid behind my ear—
     we scrub the blood away, untie the noose,
     we keep on caring for our ghosts.

The tides may be rising, and life as we knew it sinking ever deeper, but these poems waltz us to a new understanding of how to value what we have (and have not).

—Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor

Kelli Russell Agodon at EIL

Kelli Russell Agodon at Copper Canyon Press

Kelli Russell Agodon’s Website

Dialogues with Rising Tides at Copper Canyon Press

Perfect for Poets at EIL


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