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20110415-nerudas-memoirs-by-peggy-rosenthalWe know her simply as “Maureen.” She has become a treasured member of the Good Letters community with her frequent and always thoughtful comments on our posts. But now we can know her further: through her own poetry, recently collected in the volume Neruda’s Memoirs. Now, too, we meet her by her full name: Maureen Doallas.

In fact, she structures the volume as a meeting between herself and her readers, introducing each section with a brief autobiographical essay. Yet there’s nothing self-absorbed about this poetry. Whether writing about world events, or about the dying of her brother and her own grief at his loss, always the poem is somehow about the transformative power of poetry itself.

I’d even say that the volume’s theme is how the making of art is essential to our very survival.

Take the opening poem, “Trouble in Paradise.” Only a bold poet would treat the Adam-Eve story yet again, but Doallas pulls it off. In Doallas’s re-imagining of the Garden, Eve is the poet and Adam’s sin—or, really, his loss—is to turn a deaf ear to her words.

Other poems celebrate particular artists: Chopin as exile (“What does it matter / the smoke of burning city / rising like your last audience”); Matisse (“color it champagne / lighter than swallows in flight /… The laughter in your hands contagious after all.”).

And Pablo Neruda, in the book’s title poem. This poem is explicitly about the wonders that poetry can work. In finding words for Neruda’s poetic gift, Doallas gives thanks to poetry itself.

Neruda said the closest thing to poetry
is a loaf of bread
or a ceramic dish
or a piece of wood lovingly carved.

So he poured his words into the glass of another language
only some of the world speaks.

He gave light to the minds of Coquimbo.
Now they glitter like dew on a silver fish….

In Paris people uncovered their heads
to feel the daylight of his words.

The exquisite sensitivity to detail in Doallas’s poetry reminds me of my favorite two lines in Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “With Trumpets and Zithers”:

I wanted to describe this, not that, basket of vegetables with a redheaded doll of a
leek laid across it.
And a stocking on the arm of a chair, a dress crumpled as it was, this way, not other.

By attending to the miracle of the particular, Milosz says elsewhere, poetry can make a stand against life’s inevitable transience.

And for Doallas, poetry’s stay against transience became literally her way of surviving the experience of her brother’s illness and death. When her brother was suddenly diagnosed with cancer and given only weeks to live (though it turned out to be a year and a half), poetry welled up in her as the way to “listen” with a previously unknown intensity. Crafting poems became her means of listening to the depths of his experience—and of her own.

These poems form the core of Neruda’s Memoirs, but in an unusual sense. They are not all in one section of the book. Nor are they arranged chronologically. In shaping the book’s structure, Doallas adds two other dimensions of art to the poems.

Many of the poems concerning her brother’s dying and her grief are about time—about how time is not linear in our experience of it. Memory can even precede event. The non-chronological arrangement of these poems dramatizes this insight.

Furthermore, interspersed with the non-linear narrative of her brother’s dying are poems about other people and places. “Summer Headlines” sketches a lighthearted overview of world events. “On the Scene” evokes the horror of Haiti’s earthquake. “The Art of Japanese Paper Folding” pays homage to the Japanese girl from Hiroshima who, while dying of radiation exposure, crafted the paper cranes that have become a symbol for peace.

“We Can Remember” honors the losses and pain of Katrina. Following it, the very next poem, “Enough,” begins: “Where do we take cover / once the dying’s done?” The book’s structure gives the “dying” multiple referents: all those dead in New Orleans, along with Doallas’s brother Patrick, whose loss is the subject of the poems that follow.

For me, what the poems about world events do—along with the interspersed poems celebrating art and artists—is to contextualize the central drama of Doallas’ personal loss. They don’t at all minimize that loss. But they say, implicitly: everywhere there is personal loss, personal survival, personal grief, personal hope. Everywhere there is transience…yet everywhere there are miracles of recovery.

And everywhere, the crafting of art can be an agent of this recovery.

You know what it’s like to be familiar with a person in a certain context, then suddenly to discover a whole other dimension to the person’s life?

That’s how I feel about our Good Letters friend Maureen. She has been the one-who-writes-all-those-attentive-comments-on-our-posts. Now we know her in a whole new way: as an extraordinary poet, one who understands and dramatizes in her art the saving power of poetry.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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