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‘Perennial Fall’ melds pain and humor

Poet Maggie Dietz’s first book explores “caves and rivers of the imagination”

Maggie Dietz writes about loss and moving on in her first book of poems.

“There is a danger of reading poetry as autobiography,” says Maggie Dietz, whose first book, Perennial Fall, was published this month by the University of Chicago Press. To be sure, Dietz’s writing demonstrates that she has “learned that to love and suffer is to have lived fully, with eyes wide open,” according to fellow Creative Writing Program graduate and National Book Award finalist Carl Phillips (GRS’93), who calls Dietz “a masterful new voice in American poetry.”

Dietz (GRS’96), a lecturer in creative writing at the College of Arts and Sciences, says she is at times haunted by loss — and her poetry reflects that. But no, it is not true, as one magazine reviewer recently suggested after reading Dietz’s line “Brother when they laid you down . . .” that her brother killed himself. Dietz’s brother is alive and well.

Yet she has known loss. When she was in her mid-20s, one of her friends committed suicide, and within a year another died in an automobile accident. So when she writes about the death of a loved one, she takes a bit of poetic license. “Keats once wrote that poetry should be almost a remembrance for the reader, and so my goal is to convey something that might speak to other people’s experience,” she says. “Although the particulars might not be the same, the emotive core may well be familiar.”

All of which is not to say that Perennial Fall is depressing — far from it. “Loss is central in the book, but so is moving beyond it,” says Dietz, who wrote many of the book’s poems while she was writer-in-residence at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 2002 and 2003 and during a 2003-2004 fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass.

Dietz’s pen creates a world that is both humorous and pained: in “Collector,” the “Chinese master of balance” fills “bag after bag” with returnable bottles, and his “bicycle is invisible beneath the layers/of gigantic bags/piled taller than the man and broader/than the path along the pond.” And when the master of balance starts pedaling “Like a child first learning/to ride, he wobbles as he begins, his legs bowed out, leaning/too far right, then, the handlebars violently wobbling.” When she lived in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, she explains, the bottle collector was a permanent fixture at Jamaica Pond.

And the image of “dingy, rough-hided” ponies ridden by children in an amusement park in “Circle of Horses” comes from the pony rides at Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay, Wis., where Dietz grew up. “Tethered as if to a maypole,” the unfortunate animals “were old, but almost foals.”

“I love animals, and I was always so delighted to ride the ponies,” she says, “but I also had this mixed feeling about being thrilled to be that close to a horse and also feeling guilty about being complicit in what I perceived to be the difficulty and sheer boredom of these animals’ lives.”

If Dietz’s writing reminds the reader of the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, it’s because she is a great admirer of the Pulitzer Prize winner. “I love her precision — not only of detail, but of feeling,” Dietz says.

She also gratefully acknowledges the influence of former teacher Robert Pinsky, a CAS English professor and former three-time U.S. poet laureate. She now works with Pinsky on the Favorite Poem Project, which aims to celebrate poetry through readings by Americans across the country.
 
Dietz has a sense of the “uncanny sources under life’s surface,” writes Pinsky. “Her achievement — and the source of excitement for her readers — is an urgent fidelity to both that surface and the underlying caves and rivers of the imagination.”

Thanks to a fellowship from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, Dietz has been able to take break from teaching this semester and begin another book.

To read the poem “Altos III” from Perennial Fall, click here.