Ruth Roach Pierson, Realignment (Windsor: Palimpsest, 2015). Paperbound, 87 pp., $18.95.
"I have only what I remember" Ruth Roach Pierson writes in Realignment, her latest poetry collection. The phrase is borrowed from W. S. Merwin's The Shadow of Sirius and, like Merwin's book, Pierson's is "an omnium-gatherum of memories," a miscellany of over seventy-five years of fragmented remembrances realigned by poetic expression into understanding and self-acceptance. Key here is appreciating the emphasis that the title gives to the process of "realignment," making it as much the subject of this well-crafted collection as the realigned memories themselves. At its core, this is a book intent on showing how poetry's connotative language (metaphor, symbolism, allusion, etc.) works to reveal a different kind of truth than that grounded in the denotative, fact-naming language of our everyday speech and thought processes. Seen from this perspective, Realignment moves beyond its autobiographical content to demonstrate the mind's capacity to interact with poetry (and with art in general) to illuminate even our darkest and most painful recollections. It is this capacity, as Pierson writes in "Rare to contemplate," that provides us "those rare occasions when darkness dissipates, and flashes— / not of failure and mortality but what believers might call grace— / break through." When all you have is memories, this is a capacity that you want to have cultivated.
In "Realignment," the opening poem from which the book takes its title, Pierson shows how memories and the objects of our memories, in this case a childhood piano stool, can continue to shape our lives long after the event of the memory itself. We read that the poet is "loath" to part with her old "companion" even though its use as a piano stool is no longer required and it serves now as a plant stand or extra guest seat, "its / realignment of purpose an inevitable / but gentle winding down." While the poem concentrates on the poet's agency over this family keepsake ("I still press it into service"), we can see too that the memories the poet associates with the piano stool also have agency over her, affecting her life to this day. So what happens when memories refuse to wind down gently? What if, as in "Omnium-Gatherum," they "ambush" you and "re-flame buried pain" or flit past your inner eye like "short-lived visual migraines"? And let's say that you're prone to "low spirits" and "self-abnegation" like the lone equestrian in "You Are" who feels so alienated from the slate-grey world surrounding her that she believes she should be kept like a child after school "to write a hundred times over: I am, you are, he is." What then?
"'Ruth! you are the most self- / punishing person I know!'" Thelma exclaims in "Not Fog or Wasteland," a poem in which Pierson questions her own identity. "What name should I give you" she asks herself and, finding direction in her friend's use of her name, realizes that she is "'Ruth'—not fog / or wasteland." But the revelation is quickly engulfed in the poet's dispirited predisposition: "though listen / to the long umlauted vowel / of Öde, German for both / desert and / desolate—öde—if not / your name, surely / your sound.” Hers is a personality vulnerable to memories like those in "Rare to contemplate" of "lost arguments" and "bungled possibilities" that can play in the brain like difficult passages "doggedly practiced / but never mastered." Realignment addresses this dilemma as proof in itself of the mind's capacity to respond to feelings of loss and despondency in a creative and meaningful way.
"On theories of discursive construction and nothing existing apart from language," Pierson responds to certain linguistic and literary theories to affirm the material reality of the objects detected by her five senses: "[I] am confident these opulent / coordinates exist independently / of the tags and descriptors / I've assigned them." She continues: "Nonetheless / the words on this / page provide / the chief confirmation / I'm alive." In other words, the creation of poetry, the artistic realignment of the perceived and experiential provides Pierson with a world view that is life-affirming and energizing. It is a consciousness that everyone can attain, if not by creating art then by regular exposure to the literary, visual, and musical arts. A number of poems in Realignment are ekphrastic responses to paintings and installations that, like poetry, can excite the mind and provide "flashes" of insight into the "fog" and "wasteland" of modern life.
In the collection's final poem "Omnium-Gatherum," referred to earlier, Pierson expands on how memories "ambush" her "in full / daylight" by noting how "[o]dd fragments seek me out in dreams," dreams that function in ways analogous to poetry. Her use of the word "fragments" works neatly here in connection with the Eliot allusion in the collection's second poem, "Not Fog or Wasteland," to tie the book together and bring to mind the line from the last section of Eliot's masterwork: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” It is a line that well describes Pierson's achievement with Realignment and it is fitting that the collection's closing poem should recount the details of a dream in which the poet's neighbour, amid the demolition of a house under renovation, places "[t]hree bottles of pink-tinted water" on her front porch while the night sky explodes with fireworks. Ruth Roach Pierson's Realignment, with its three sections of fluid, interflowing poems, is the promise of water in what the thunder said.