When Edward Hirsch invited Emily Fragos to read with him in the lovely decommissioned train station that is home to The Hudson Valley Writers Center, all who attended expected a brilliant and memorable afternoon of poetry. No one in the standing room only crowd was disappointed. In spite of the many honors garnered by Hirsch over the years and recently by Fragos, I left the reading wondering what it was that made the particular pairing so incandescent. The reading took place on bright, windy October afternoon, the Hudson River and Hook Mountain as a backdrop. But the setting was only the setting and not what made sparks fly.
Fragos read from her most recent collection Hostage: New and Selected Poems and Hirsch read excerpts from Gabriel: a Poem, a searching book-length tribute to the life the son he lost in 2011 and The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems. The affinity between the poets and the poems is striking. Yet these poets seem to approach their poems very differently. In her introduction to the reading, Jennifer Franklin, Program Director of the Writers Center, quoted Hirsch as saying that Fragos’s poems seem “unlikely” to him at first but then surprising in the way they reach us. Both poets are full of surprises, but this observation seems to get at a difference in where the poems begin. In a 2011 interview in Guernica, Emily Fragos quotes, in its entirety, a poem by Ted Kooser: “If you can awaken/inside the familiar/ and find it strange/you need never leave home.” It is the combination of familiarity and strangeness and the poets’ generosity in locating and sharing it that created the sense of sparks whirling in the room. Fragos tells me in an e-mail that poetry should be “mesmerizing and elusive,” qualities she admires in Hirsch’s work. Unlikely, surprising, mesmerizing, elusive: both poets arrive but by different routes. It seems to me that Hirsch most often reaches the strange through the familiar and Fragos, the familiar through the strange.
Here is Edward Hirsch remembering a moment with his small son in an excerpt from Gabriel: A Poem:
I’m grasping his ankles
Giving him a seat in the Grandstands
Just above my head
The sun wants to see
The stage over the crowd
And look down upon the world
Here is the child, riding on his father’s shoulders like any child, but becoming a sun god in a pun few poets could pull off without throwing the reader out of sympathy. The gravity of this long, luminous, heartbreaking poem, given us without any punctuation, allows for the both the play and the tragedy the poet experienced with his son, a life affirmed.
Here is the beginning of Emily Fragos’s “The Scarlatti Sun” from her second book Hostage:
The mute seamstress on her knees
sticks a pin in the hem
and weeps for the cloth;
the dead stop their dying,
their heads warming like stones
in the Scarlatti sun,
Here, we are surprised by the “mute seamstress.” Vivid as she is, the word “mute” distances us, suggesting a permanent condition. And how far into the miraculous world we are in the second stanza, though we feel the warming stones. But Fragos pulls us closer as the postman’s mind goes, “windswept,” and the novitiate in a convent is “taken up” and “rushes across the just-washed floor.” So we come from far way to the music of the everyday.
A recent banner in an email promoting the Hudson Valley Writers Center’s upcoming Gala (Nov. 5) read “Brilliance, Humanity, and Humility”. It was surely inspired by this generous poetry reading. Neither of Hirsch nor Fragos shies from examining suffering in their poems. But I left this reading feeling my spirit lightened, feeling that poetry does make things happen.
Karen Steinmetz is a poet and novelist. Her poems have appeared in The Cortland Review, Coal Hill Review, Southern Poetry Review, So To Speak, and the anthology Still Against War I-V, among other venues. Her young adult novel The Mourning Wars was published by Roaring Brook/Macmillan in 2011.