This is a review of the fourth book of poetry by Alane Rollings, called “To Be in This Number.” And this is my blog so I will be as wandering, long-winded, possibly transgressive, and relatively irrelevant as I like. In fact, that may be far more helpful than the usual metaphors about “hearts,” “richness,” and “colors.” After all, the idea is to tempt you to read a book I enjoyed.
Let me lay out a little narrative line here. On the Montana “highline” (of the railroad because it runs just south of the Canadian border) where I live, they say there is a sunstorm every eleven years which causes extra rain which makes the berries more abundant and sweeter that year. (Note for metaphors: sweet, thorny, blooming, and, well, purple.)
1928, the year Richard Stern the novelist and University of Chicago professor was born.
1939, the year I was born.
1950, the year Alane Robbins was born.
1961, the year I graduated from Northwestern University on the other end of Chicago from the “U of.”
1972, the year I gave up on my marriage to Bob Scriver, Montana sculptor (born 1914).
1983, the spring of my first year as a Unitarian Universalist minister after a four-year grad-school retread at the University of Chicago, including as many classes from Richard Stern as he would let me take. Maybe three?
By 1994, I’d left the ministry.
2005 was the year this book of poetry was published by the Tri-Quarterly Press at Northwestern.
If you want to make this daisy chain into a necklace, consider that Norman Maclean, who hired Stern at the U of C in the first place, was born (1902) and raised in Montana. His own semi-memoir, “A River Runs through It,” has become a classic.
Let’s get it out of the way. Stern’s best-selling novel, “Other Men’s Daughters,” and several others (“Natural Shocks”) were drawn from his departure from a conventional (and painfully cracked) marriage into another (overlapping as an affair) -- with a much younger student. No one is fooled by the disguises. I mean, most readers knew they WERE disguises, just not what was mustache, what was putty nose, and what was actual. The second marriage has endured.
Alane, now aged fifty-six -- against Stern’s seventy-eight -- is still a girl, but a girl with the chops of a professor, the ethics of a feminist, and the dilemmas of a beautiful woman raised in a loving, prosperous family in Savannah, Georgia, (Stern, Manhattan. Me, Oregon and Montana.) and then confronting the rough, corrupt, windy city of Chicago and a huge sea-change in society.
An age difference, I discovered when I fell in love with Bob Scriver (him, 47; myself 21) is very much like an international relationshop, with time replacing space. The differences constantly surprise, intrigue, and sometimes offend. But also, in my case, I was looking for a combination of adventure and protection, which Bob was willing and able to provide. Since we couldn’t make it last (blame it on success), I’ve been interested in these asymmetrical relationships, and interested in women who write about overpowering husbands, who often ironically draw their power from wives who are seen by outsiders as “lesser.” For instance, the poet Deborah Love was married to Peter Matthiessen and wrote a memoir called “Annaghkeen” which I found profoundly moving and helpful. Peter’s book about her death is “The Snow Leopard.” She drew him into the Buddhism that has sustained him ever since.
Another relationship with a difference in place and temperament -- but not age -- is that of Richard Benjamin (Manhattan) and Paula Ragusa Prentiss (Tulsa, Oklahoma). Benjamin’s personality is very much like that of Richard Stern. (Stern’s U of C undergrad students might not believe this, but I knew the Benjamins at NU and will swear to the similarity of the two Richards, both the formidable intelligence and the zany sense of humor plus a quite firmly rooted common sense.) Paula, as beautiful as Alane, is tuned to high-tension passions which is what makes her a ravishing actress. The archetypal story is Paula deciding to commit suicide (for the zillionth time) by wading into Lake Michigan. The beach is so gradual that she had to walk a very long way to get into water as deep as her waist. In the meantime, Benjamin -- carrying her coat over his arm -- walked along parallel on a long pier. When Paula stopped, with chattering teeth, Benjamin suggested mildly that he take her for a cup of hot coffee. She reversed directions. Meeting her on the sand with her coat, he took his dripping mermaid to the Hut, where the theatre crowd hung out. The adventure was much appreciated by all. If the Stern/Rollings literary alliance were to be made into a movie, it would be fascinating to see what it would be like if Benjamin and, say, his and Ragusa’s grown daughter, played the parts.
An illustration of the contrast between Stern and Rollings might be their reviews of “Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose.” Stern’s praise is high but academic; Rollings says, “I’d like to have this book tattooed all over me!”
If you want to know factual background about Stern/Rollings, there are books about Stern that include her briefly, like: “The Writings of Richard Stern: The Education of an Intellectual Everyman,” by David Garrett Izzo (3 Index citations) or “Richard Stern” by James Schiller (12 Index citations). They can be helpful.
There is always debate about the morality or good manners of writing intimately about one’s own life or remarking on other people who do that. Here is the position I take, which is lifted from Paul Tillich’s theological strategy. When asked whether God were a being or a nonbeing, Tillich invented a new category: “the ground of being” and assigned God to it. I guess I would invent something I would call “the ground of creativity” and say that it is crucial to the life of writing but doesn’t mean one has to stick to the facts. Different things rise from it under different circumstances.
This is especially relevant when considering Rollings’ work, since she is clearly an embedded person: in family, in region, in genre, in academic community, and in personal relationship. She is not exactly a “confessional” poet, but is clearly working with her own life. Consider her title here: “To Be in This Number,” lyrics accompanied on the cover by the relevant notes. Chosen? Saving remnant? The Saints? All rise from that ground.
People, especially females, who write about their own lives are accused of being narcissistic, which the frankly confessional ones celebrate. Rollings’ first poem, “Sweetness Night and Day,” begins with the childlike grandiose idea that no loved one will die if one loves them enough, carrying the burden of their memory, “Hoisting them around like a bag of newborn lambs sticking noses out to nuzzle me.” (That metaphor made me a fan. I see both real lambs -- my relatives raise sheep -- and Persian lamb coats on old ladies, astrakhan hats on sophisticated gents.) She gives them “constant reassurance of their actuality” while yearning to know who she is herself. The conclusion is “the only way to keep them was to hold as closely as I could all the borrowed elements that recompose me by the hour.” The two tropes that shape the poem are traveling on a river and sunrise/sunset. “In the limits of this place whose sweetness night and day, when love moves through in infinite streams, nothing can exceed.” So -- self-centered but knowingly, romantically.
The poems are announced as a “chain,” though at first we don’t know whether she means a “daisy chain” or a restraint or a linked set of events. The poems of Part I are arranged on a chronology. The second “Fire in the Water,” describes a terrible flood in the Twenties that echoes New Orleans today. It tells of a man who comes to himself, probably Rollings’ father.
“Page-a-minute” is a title I don’t catch -- how can we ever hope to pick up on every reference in a poet’s mind? These poems assume a literary and historical background that fewer and fewer share, alas; but I can pretty much keep up. I know my muses, my fairy tales and even what a Moon Pie is, though I’ve never related it to menstruation before and never lived in a climate where a girl might be carried into the Minit Store cooler for recovery after fainting. I love the idea that the REM twitches of closed eyes are “secret reading.” The poet says, “I’m caught inside Time’s crooked bite.” Then she gives one last brief glimpse of her mother, nearly side-swiped by a bus, her dress wet and blown up “unveiling Mamma’s skinny legs,” her surprising vulnerability, and “our helplessness.” Children against a bus.
“Gang of Four” is about those children and makes the chain theme explicit: “(I’d suggest, Let’s rest and make a chain...) And I know how, (We’ll braid the stems...)” The Edenic bliss of one’s tight circle of childhood friends can give one a fund of trust that makes possible stepping away to a looser set of relationships, often lifelong but “Ephemera entering the realm of the Perpetual.” You know the story of the grasshopper sawing away until nearly nonexistent?
“Crossover” details love for Celia, the colored maid from another world entirely, and here’s the title of the book: It’s a line in “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Celia is the access to Rock ‘n Roll, Soul, and that wild world of music and despair that teaches a darker world of people to go all out, “dance big”, endure everything, and find God in the least of these.
“Blood Sport” is a tennis poem -- I don’t know many of these. But I know about tennis at the U of C because my bedroom opened onto the tennis courts at the Faculty Club and in good weather the constant “pok - pok - pok” of the volleys rang all day. The poem is really about trying -- “Hit it!” -- and ends in a litany of athlete’s names. Scholars are even more strenuous and driven. This is about a different kind of tennis than professorial exercise. A sibling, maybe?
“Saint Venus.” Lady Di. A lament for someone trapped.
“The Secret Blackness of Red Roses.” (If Rollings has a tattoo, I’m betting it’s a black red rose) This poem is a quilt of quotes, like those old friendship quilts where women embroider sayings, each in its square, sew them together and present the result to someone. The quotes are from female writers, each unique, some more feminist than others, and all address the ambivalent relationship between mother and daughter. “I am downy duck,” is the beginning. “For us to bind with doubled thread, the beautiful, the Sublime” is the end.
There is one surprising part describing a male lover, “rocked me at the window, kissing, laughing...” A former parishioner of mine, a feminist therapist, after reading something I wrote about Bob Scriver, cried out in surprise, “Why, Mary, you married your mother!” Yup. But also a violent shouting father. (Stern can do that, too.)
That’s the end of the first series, taking downy duck to adulthood, when mother (hair like duck down) leaves, but lover comes.
Part II is linked through the years with Stern, who is literally worldly, going everywhere and often taking his wife along. Part III is linked by memory.
I have to say that as a former student who only knew a professor whom I then came to know as an author, it’s sweet to glimpse the husband-lover in “High Romance and Everlastingness.”
But this is too much. (Repeatedly Stern used to write in the margins of my stories, “too much.”) You should form your own opinions and associations. Maybe you’ll know more about Rollings’ world and be able to decipher her code more accurately than I. This book is a “ground of creation” that can be drawn on many times. And if you don‘t have every fact written in the margin, the poems can also be read as free associations, images in sequence, linked by one woman’s consciousness, ready for your own linked response.