NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Collected Poems by Patricia Dobler
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, 2005)
Patricia Dobler was very much an American poet. As Patricia Averdick, she was born in Middletown, Ohio, in 1939. After completing a BA in Political Science at St. Xavier College, Chicago, she married Bruce Dobler. As the wife of a writer and professor, she moved house many times: all the way from Iowa City to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with many stops in-between. It was in Pittsburgh, after raising two daughters, that she began writing after completing her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh where she studied poetry with Ed Ochester, Lynn Emanuel and Louis Simpson. She came to writing late in her life and only produced two volumes of poetry during her lifetime, Talking With Strangers (1986) and UXB (1991). Her final book, Collected Poems was published posthumously in 2005.
The Collected Poems contains all of the poems that she wished to see in print.
In her professional life, she taught at Carlow College in Pittsburgh and she also directed the Women’s Creative Writing Centre. Friends who knew her say that she had an enormous hunger for life and for art. Her first volume of poems displayed a maturity that went way beyond what one would normally expect from a first collection and it won her the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. She was also a translator and a few of her translations are included in the volume under review.
On first impression, the Second World War is never far from her work. This is hardly surprising given the fact that she was born in 1939. In En Route it manifests itself in
The railroad guards who rifled my bags, looking for bombs
and it is prominent in several other poems such as Train Platform: Munich to Dachau; Soldier Stories and in The Driven Out: May, 1945.
In a poem about an unexploded bomb found on an old Messerschmitt field in Augsburg, West Germany, Dobler puts aside her translation work, in which she ingenuously likens the process of extracting and unravelling the meaning of the poem to that of defusing an unexploded bomb, in order to focus attention on the action in the field below. The way she uses a line break and a section break to hold the tension for one more unforgettable moment is impeccable:
I left you alone for a time,stopped teasing you out like a fusefrom a ticking clock. On the other sideof the window, I waitedfor the bomb’s wump.
Which did not come. The UXB
got safely herded back to scrap.
In Truth her origins are captured in an uneasy tension that acts as a stimulus to many of the family portraits contained within the book:
Germans only tell the lies that they believe,and I believed it when I said“I’m mostly Hungarian,” or “American
mostly,” if anyone asked. Really, I’m half
German, father’s side. My mother’s mother’s
maiden name was Singhoffer, but she was born
in Hungary, you understand. I was born in 1939
(that is the truth) the beginning of good years
to be anything but German. And the family felt
Family poems sometimes take the form of group or individual portraits vividly drawn from the past. In Your Language Is Lost At Sea, she writes, for example, of her grandmother as if she is speaking directly to her:
…you buried the Hunkie gutturals and sibilants keeping back only the few consonants and vowels you thought your children would need in Ohio…
and describes her in a later poem, Grandma Remembered, as a woman who
swallowed her pride to say yes to compassion…and never forgot it.
In Uncles’ Advice we read about the uncles who like dark birds / flew away to war; and there are many fine poems about her father which are drawn with candour and a mastery of restraint. There is nothing sentimental here, just honest truth.
Many of Dobler’s poems inhabit an industrial landscape. There are frequent references to steel mills where the blast furnaces are described like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. To Sister Monica, who takes the fourth-graders on a field trip to the mill
the blazing orange heat pouring outliquid fire like Devil’s soupdoesn’t surprise her. She understandsIndustry and Capital and Labor,the Protestant trinity.
The Joke (the title becomes clear on reading the poem) is a fine piece of writing set in a paper mill. The language is taut and descriptive so that we have no doubt that we are in the poem seeing and hearing everything that she writes about as if we are experiencing it firsthand. The Great Miami River which flows beside the mill is described as
Hardly a river more a slow-moving mass of pea-colored sludgeThat no one remarked on including her because even she knew
If you wanted a paper mill and its jobs you had to take green muck
For a river…
Inside the mill, she writes about
the wet smell of gluey cardboard coming apart
the rolls of waste paper taller than the marble columns of Cincinnati’sRailroad station…
Pitched against the hard lines of industrial America are some joyous moments of spontaneity and release. In Jazz she writes:
Chicago how I loved youmy release, my out of jail my joythe sweet heat of the drinks in those clubsunder the city…
…even I could hear the intricate unwinding
of the riffs careening from the alto sax.
and, years later, in what I call its companion piece, Rock and Roll she writes
my husband and I are upand dancing, not, for the momentthinking it strange to rock and roll inthe only Serbian restaurant in Hildesheim, West Germany, maybe the first Chicago dirty boogie since circa 1957ever danced there…
…together in that moment, we are the world’s oldest teenagers,
and rock and roll will never die.
Poems about the natural world are few and far between but Tarantuala deserves a special mention because it is a beautiful piece of writing which shows what Dobler was more than capable of achieving in drawing on a scene from nature:
Nothing to see here but scrub, just a dirt road like a hot held breathbetween El Paso and Chandelar, then in front of us,a tarantuala shedding his skin. In the grip of the one beautiful thinghe knows how to do.
She muses on what it must be like
To slip out of your body, to drop it like an old shirt.
Her compassion for all living things is brought out in her poems which are addressed not only to friends and family but also dwell on incidents concerning total strangers. The following poem, the last in the book, seems like a fitting place to end because it expresses so clearly what it means to be truly human, courageous and vulnerable, and above all, honest to the last:
Whenever Someone I Love Gets Sick I Get Angry
which is my way of being afraid. I take their illnesses to heart, that is, to my unnamed heart…
…So when I am angry with your fevers,
when I say “don’t die” so fiercely, I want you to hear
“I love you” the full weight of those words.
There is not enough space to do full justice to this collection. Autumn House Press are to be congratulated on having the foresight to bring together and publish this definitive edition which is a fitting tribute to a poet who died too young. It is highly recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna published by White Adder Press, Scotland (2011) and The Worcester Fragments published by Original Plus, England (2013).