It takes a certain amount of guts, these days, even to submit a rhymed poem to a journal, especially if it’s not a villanelle (those seem to have been grandfathered into contemporary poetry). I, too, often find recent rhymed poems precious or silly, though it alarms me a bit when I see that a magazine has explicitly forbidden them—how do they know what might turn up when they least expect it?
Once in a while, a writer is able to hit the right tone and harness rhyme for that essential job of poetry, letting us compass and comprehend loss and, in particular, the big D—no, not Dallas, I mean Death. For me, Dan Albergotti’s “Inside” is such a poem:
(The next poem, “Wilderness,” is also very much worth reading.)
The poem moves from the concrete to the abstract, from the natural to the personal. It sets up an expectation of obvious meanings and oppositions and then plays with and distorts them; the regularity of the form, including the internal-rhyme links, helps to disguise how the poem has wandered into deeper and more twisty relationships:
In the soil, the growing seed. In the tree, the lark.
In the child, the weight of years. In the steel, the rust.
In my head, the unsaid words. In the diamond, coal.
This is at once a familiar and an unnerving trope: we are used to the notion of a jewel hiddden or potentially present in the dross, but not the other way round.
Finally, the poem turns, turning the concept of blood vessel inside out, turning from a timeless catalogue of noun phrases to the recognition, of an irretrievable past in the verb, and turning back on itself: the poem is the wake, the trace of the poet’s mother and of his grief:
In my blood, your vessel ran. In these lines, its wake.
Well, that was a good day at the poetry smithy, don’t you think? So far I have not found a way to incorporate into my own work any overt form beyond what turns up without my consciously willing it.
Reading Albergotti’s collection, Millennial Teeth, you get a strong impression of the “rapture of distress” (Auden’s phrase) that so often lends force and a feeling of authenticity to poetry. This is clearly important to his work, and yet the reader may start to wonder how many of his wounds are self-inflicted. He is deeply troubled by overt racism, militarism, and Christianity, yet he chooses to live in rural South Carolina. Obviously he didn’t choose his family; still, by middle age, many people have found ways to live with even extremely suboptimal family backgrounds. The events touched on in “Wilderness,” Albergotti’s failure to answer his mother’s phone calls or, when he did answer, to comfort her adequately, his failure to rescue his sister from the family home or from her mental illness or the brain damage she suffered as a newborn—these genuine sources of deep regret appear over and over in what strikes me as a strangely unprocessed form. a psychologist friend says that she kept wondering whether he couldn’t profit from therapy, something she doesn’t usually think about when reading poems.
Perhaps he would benefit from a dose of Frontier Psychiatry: