Review by Penelope MoffetOrpheus on the Red Line

by Theodore Deppe

Tupelo Press
P.O. Box 1767
North Adams, MA 01247
ISBN 978-1-932195-75-0
2009, 74 pp., $16.95

Chance led me to the haunting and beautiful poems of Theodore Deppe, whose Orpheus on the Red Line was available for adoption at the summer 2011 Rattle publication party.

Those present were invited to pillage a box of books the magazine needed to clear out, and so I met Deppe’s Orpheus. The title drew my eye–I’ve always been a sucker for Greek mythology–but I didn’t read the book right away. It went into a stack by my favorite chair for a couple of months until one early morning I picked it up, intending to read just a little before getting down to my own writing. Soon I felt a prickle of excitement, hairs rising at the nape of the neck, and my morning plans went out the window.

Deppe’s poetry has not been much written about, although this is his fourth book. In 2003, in Poetry Ireland Review, one writer likened the work in his third collection, Cape Clear: New and Selected Poems (Salmon Press, 2002), to the poetry of Raymond Carver. Carver and Deppe do share a strong narrative drive, a tendency to work with material pulled from their own lives, an affinity with nature, lucidity, spareness and attention to the telling detail. However, these are not uncommon characteristics among contemporary American poets. In tone, style, form, material and theme Carver and Deppe are very dissimilar. I mean no disrespect to Carver, who was a ground-breaking writer of short stories that are profound and profoundly moving, and many of whose poems I find wonderful, particularly those collected in his last book, A New Path to the Waterfall (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989). But Deppe’s Orpheus poems go farther than Carver’s in the way in which they mingle personal history, the larger natural world, and the myths which have given possible meaning to people’s lives for centuries. The surprises, the classical magic of the music woven by Deppe, are entirely his own.

Music runs throughout Orpheus, beginning with the first poem, “The Singing,” in which nuthatches “chat” upside down on a pine tree bough before the telephone’s ring brings news of a daughter in distress thousands of miles away, a conversation during which the poet alone hears on the line a kind of chanting. The daughter is rescued by neighbors in the Greek village from which she has called and the poem turns, and turns again, arriving at a deceptively quiet ending which brings together the nuthatches, the humans, and a celebration of the necessity of immersion in the beauty of what we cannot keep:

There is a map and a clock and a humming in the room,
there is coffee, or champagne and kofta curry,

there is a family, or at least the hope that someone might, if not
rescue us, hear us. There is this chatting together

as we amble about upside down and try to get used
to the perspective. And there is this shared time,

which is the green bough, for which I am grateful.

Born in Minnesota, Deppe lived a rather peripatetic life before settling on the west coast of Ireland. He is on the faculty of the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine, and directs an offshoot of the program in Ireland. Previously he worked for a couple of decades as a nurse in psychiatric hospitals and coronary care units. Those experiences generate many of his poems. He is haunted, for instance, by the memory of Marisol, an abused child (apparently the subject of several poems in one of those earlier books I’m going to have to look up), and in “Rowan” thinks of her whenever he sees a certain stunted tree in his Irish neighborhood, evoking the story of Daphne in the deft ending: “Nothing much left in this gale/but one hobbled tree. From which a girl might step.”

There are a couple of poems for and about Csezlaw Milosz, who is not named in the first one, “A Polish Poet in County Clare,” but is identifiable by his wild eyebrows and by that poem’s placement just before “Two-Minute Panel on Poetry and Truth,” in which Milosz is explicitly invoked. “Two-Minute Panel” describes a public dispute between an older poet, who sides with Milosz and believes that poetry must reflect the exact truth of a life, and a younger poet, who stands with Picasso in believing that “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” Deppe doesn’t overtly endorse either poet but seems to weigh in with the elder by giving him the last word: “You make up whatever you like,/but I’ll keep writing what happens in the city’s heart.”

Deppe is concerned with telling stories and with encouraging others to turn their experiences into art. Married to another poet, in “For Annie, Who Worries We’re Writing the Same Poem,” he notes that although they may share a history, what they write from that history will inevitably be very different:

I’ll write what you call my serpentine syntax
and you, I know, will risk
any word that gives a line some lift, so let’s say we do
light on the same image, won’t it be like
all these years together, shared
but not really the same at all, more like alto
and bass, different notes in the same chord,
a way to make the music bigger?

Only the penultimate poem of Orpheus, “The Red Line,” explicitly invokes the book’s namesake, but in a way the legendary lyre-player moves through the entire collection. In “The Red Line,” the speaker, traveling away from his hospitalized wife on public transportation in Boston, is seized by sudden fear and immediately rides the train back to her. His fear is doubled by the thought that, like the original Orpheus, in turning to look again he may be doing absolutely the wrong thing. But he tells himself:

                 I am not Orpheus:
turning back early does not
mean I’ll lose my wife.

I enter her room, find
they’ve helped her to a chair,
and she’s sitting at the window,

watching the gusting snow.
You look terrible, she says.
It’s good to see you.

Okay, so there is a little touch of Carver there. I can imagine the author of “Cathedral” writing, or wanting to write, an ending like that one.

Deppe’s three books before Orpheus are Children of the Air (Alice James Books, 1990), The Wandering King (Alice James Books, 1996) and Cape Clear: New and Selected Poems. He deserves to be better known.


Penelope Moffet’s poetry has been published in The Missouri Review, Columbia, Pearl, Riverwind, The MacGuffin and other magazines. In another lifetime she was a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times.

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