“sometimes you have to return
a gentle planet to its shelf”
The body, the Earth, the Universe—comparable in their brokenness, complaints, traumas, needs—vie for our attention and, in this modern world through our modern modes of communication, we hear and feel their anxieties daily. In the midst of this anxiety, Kelli Russell Agodon stumbles through human limitation, sometimes into its deepest compressions, in her carefully crafted book Dialogues with Rising Tides. Drawing in sharp breathes to invite calm and keep herself going, the brave speaker of these poems does not tell us everything will be okay, or how we can fix the planet, or that we must heal the soul, or that anything about this broken universe is repairable. She only does, at times, what is most soothing and possible: forgives herself for everything, taking stock of each kindness offered in a given day.
In the poem “When My Therapist Tells Me My Father’s Trauma Has Been Transferred to Me, I Think,” her speaker notes,
how long he has been missing
from the planet, still part of the seawater
his ashes move through the Pacific
and as she talks, I think of how the sky
never lets me down—when I look up,
there is always a cloud to study,
a new shade of blue.
With every turn into pain, a turn toward a blessing—something to be grateful for. In “Grace,” the speaker realizes that “it’s so tiring / how every day is a miracle” and yet, by the end of the poem, can’t help but name another miracle. And in one of my favorite poems, “The Sun Doesn’t Know It’s a Star,” she questions our lack of wonder while noticing the honeybees that “rise from the heart of the canyon.” “[W]atch them,” she admonishes,
like small suns circling the slight blossoms,
watch them slide in knowing
even a small amount of nectar
is a greater sum then none.
Like her body that carries past traumas, she feels the earth’s trauma—how it is dying and how we are partly responsible for this. In “To Help Climate Change We Buy Rechargeable Sex Toys,” she admits
As I pick up
a feather tickler from the bargain bin, I think
of the decline of North American birds, three billion birds
missing and how each year fewer cliff swallows return
to our neighborhood.
And in “Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror,” she must do something, so she says,
. . . we’re replacing our cabinet knobs
because we can’t change the world but we can
change our hardware. (8)
Paranoia and guilt grip the speaker and she observes how our modern awareness of all the tragedies that could befall us, as well as the performative sensationalism of this awareness, is eroding our sense of community and care. “Somewhere between ego / and starshine, we lost our hatbox of kindness,” stashing it away in a closet because “fear / seemed more dramatic on the living- / room table.” (The Sun Doesn’t Know It’s a Star)
And even while naming our preoccupation with this drama, these poems are powerful because they promise only minor salvations—ones that come by rumination, curiosity, close encounters with personal pain, and the wisdom to refuse an offer of a million dollars if the speaker will pull wings off of a butterfly; better yet, “the legs off a spider” incites a friend, for “One Million Dollars,”
—believing that we choose who we hurt
based on their beauty, because the things that frighten us
are easier to kill. (Hold Still)
The speaker’s own body questions its value over and over again. In “Everyone is Acting as if We’re Not Temporary, and I Am Falling Apart in the Privacy of My Own Home,” she recalls her father saying, “You are worth more than you know.” Nevertheless, “Damage” she admits in, “How Damage Can Lead to Poetry,”
creates the thought
of brokenness: my ocean never has enough
songbirds, my life never has enough
song. It’s morning and there’s a whisper in my family
history—I know the suicides, the stories
of strange deaths: brother choking
on a balloon, sister tripping on the church steps
and hitting her head so perfectly
her arteries became a celebration.
Leading us into the depths of her own anxieties over past assaults, suicidal thoughts, and family trauma, Dialogues with Rising Tides examines our slow descent into madness over trying to stay safe and sane. “Bravery” says the speaker, “is what I hold as I cry in the shower,” in Agodon’s poem titled “Bravery.”
Bravery, I tell
the body who is now curled
on the shower floor, her hair
a New Year’s resolution of rainfall,
her mascara a river of ink down her
cheekbones, and when I pull her
from drowning, I think about how easy it is
to be anonymous in your own home . . .
These themes feel so familiar to my own life and poetry. The body as both its own enemy and comfort. Home as not home. A mind that roves through histories like files in a file box to understand present depressions and fears. The Earth as a mirror for the self—neglected, desired, struggling, beautiful. As Agodon’s speaker confesses her soul’s weariness, trying, she says, “to apologize for things I haven’t done / yet,” I also feel the weariness and recall mornings “I woke up,” like she,
and wandered outside
onto the backtrail,
past the No Trespassing sign into the arms
of an evergreen or a black bear. It didn’t matter
who held me then; I was the moss, the lichen,
the mushroom growing on the fallen leaves.
Because I have also felt the unspoken pressure from others to “Cover up,” because “[my] flaws are showing.”
These poems weave like free-verse waves across Dialogues, conversing with one another in seven sections titled Cross Rip, Breaksea, Scarweather, Black Deep, Overfalls, Shambles, and Relief, calling attention to connectivity, as each molecule of water is connected to the other, as “the man you love is connected to you . . .
no matter what, but he’s also connected to the woman
down the street with the small dog that barks at the lilacs,
and she’s connected to the cashier at the market who’s a bit rough
with the grapes . . .
All to say that the joys and pains, traumas and experiences, pasts, phobias, and hopes we carry influence every particle of matter we contact, initiating change and exchange. It’s a lesson in physics. An understanding that we cannot dismiss one another or pretend the planetary sphere we inhabit is not altered by our destructive behaviors or small acts of kindness, each wave crashing against the other, each droplet dancing with a multitude of others.
We are water moving in and out of water.
Yet, says the speaker, “in this world we’ve been taught to keep / our emotions tight, a rubber band ball where / we worry if one band loosens, the others will begin / shooting off in all directions.” This is not ideal says the speaker, so she tells a stranger in a bakery that she loves his argyle socks, “and he grabs my hand,” she says
the way a memory holds tight in the smallest
corner. He smiles and says,
I always hope someone will notice.
How hard is that? Very hard I imagine for most of us spinning out of orbit to find a loftier salvation from all of life’s heartache. But, suggests the speaker, maybe our heartache is of our own doing. “Maybe,” she hypothesizes, “America is in romantic decline,”
a stock photo we downloaded, what we thought
was happiness—insert sunflower field, insert
favorite brand name, a couple drinking
mochas. I’ve sipped from that mug, sometimes
I’ve tasted the burn, sometimes the lukewarm,
and in my mind I hear Roethke saying,
You’ll be happy to know
today I was only mildly depressed.
In the end, says Dialogues, it is not all of our most lofty, well devised plans to save self and Earth from some expected devastation that will be our true salvation. Rather, as if from a page of history, Dialogues shows us a better way in “Thank You For Saving Me, Someday I’ll Save You Too”—
But when the tides
kept rising and the fires burned, we learned the best advice
did not come from God, a guidebook,
or fear, the best advice came from the lost
sparrow on the pine beam, struggling, but able
to fly, wingbeats of Morse code: Follow me into the light. (85)
Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of The Optimist Shelters in Place (Harbor Editions 2022), Slaughter the One Bird (Sundress 2021), Parrot Flower (Glass 2021), and Still Life (PANK 2020). Winner of the New American Press 2019 Heartland Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Salamander, Slipstream, The Berkeley Poetry Review, Lunch Ticket, Borderland, etc. She is an associate poetry editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry and reader for The Maine Review.
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