Review by Lori A. May
RUIN AND BEAUTY
By Deena Metzger
Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 3537
Granada Hills CA 91394
2009, 312 pp., $23.95
For more than forty years, Deena Metzger has been demonstrating her dedication not only to penning wonderful poems, but also to living a life as a Literary Citizen. When reading the media release provided by the publisher, Red Hen Press, I immediately thought of Whitman and Emerson and the primal call for our poets to take action. Speaking of Metzger’s creed, the publisher says, “It is no longer sufficient, she believes, for the poet to be an unacknowledged legislator of the world, for the committed poet is called to engage with the full heart in the continuous activity of restoration on behalf of beauty, wisdom and the natural world.” Such a statement is an incredible preface to reading the 300+ page collection of new and selected poems. But how does the poetry answer this call?
Metzger’s poems respond beautifully. Such a substantial collection requires organization and Metzger has done well to group the poems by themed, titled sections that act as an invitation to the topics included. The first poem included in the section entitled “Service at the Earth Altar,” calls for action among us, through the chant-like verse of “Oh Great Spirit”:
Oh Great Spirit. Heal the animals. Protect the animals. Restore the
Our lives will also be healed. Our souls will be protected. Our spirits will be restored.
Oh Spirit of Raven. Oh Spirit of Wolf. Oh Spirit of Whale. Oh Spirit of
Elephant. Oh Spirit of Snake.
Teach us, again, how to live.
In this poem, we collectively beg for forgiveness, remembering those “we have slaughtered” and those “we have feared” and those “we have tortured.” Our humanity is questioned. Our own spirit is tested. A call to action is served to us on a harsh, cold platter.
Throughout this section, Metzger puts humanity in its place, elevating nature and urging life to work in harmony, for a common good. In “Opening All the Doors to the Rain,” the reader is confronted with the ethics of being blessed by nature:
In the Beginning, after the flood there was a rainbow. Now, during the
drought, this sweet interval of rain. But the question remains: Do we have
a right to pray for rain? What can we offer before we take in the rain with
our dry roots and open mouths, when the fires we are setting are seething
on the horizon?
I am stunned and awed at the simplicity of how so few words can remind us that life is not a buffet; “What can we offer before we take” is enough of a mantra to live by, and applicable to all walks of life, if you ask me. Within this statement, humanity is reborn. Actions made in response to these words would most certainly be fair, compassionate, and empathetic to all living, breathing things.
As a poet, essayist, teacher, healer, and medicine woman, Metzger offers us an abundance of necessarily heavy subject matter bundled with passion between these pages of love, rage, and hope. It comes with the territory. It is to be expected. However, every now and then, Metzger throws us a break, a moment to stretch our legs, breathe in, breathe out, and within these moments we are given poems slightly lighter, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but always refreshing.
I was struck with the poem “Do Poems Have Gender or Sex?” within the section entitled “The Dark Animal Gods.” Within this prose poem are beautiful nuggets of lines too pure and too full of wonderment not to share. But, first, an introduction from the beginning lines:
OK. There are poems that both men and women write, and then there are poems
that come only from a woman. Also, of course, poems that could only come from
While Metzger introduces us to the subject by pondering the either/or of gender, we are quickly entertained by one-liners that wow us, and not only make us think, but make us smile and truly dig deep in questioning gender roles. “So, I am wondering,” the narration tells us, “what kind of poem goes to church / with a gun in its pocket?” From this point on, the poem counter-plays between male and female poems, the roles of gender within the poem, and the personified genders of poems. Metzger’s mastery is sheer brilliance.
Whether you have read Metzger’s many previous collections or, like me, are new to the poet’s power, Ruin and Beauty is a welcome cornucopia of pleasures, dares, warnings, and resolutions. For each moment of ruin, Metzger offers suggestions for reviving beauty. Where there seems to be little hope, the poems subtly shift and provide some. Metzger is a master of her language, a guiding force for her pen, and through her substantial collection, she is also a poet’s poet, one who knows how to solicit emotion and call for action.
Lori A. May is a poet, novelist, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications such as The Writer, Tipton Poetry Journal, and anthologies such as Van Gogh’s Ear. She is the author of stains: early poems and two novels, Moving Target and The Profiler. May is also Managing Editor at Marick Press and Founding Editor of The Ambassador Poetry Project. For more information, visit http://www.loriamay.com.