Poems by Lee Ann Roripaugh
|Milkweed Editions, 2014
If the titular term “dandarians” is unfamiliar to you, don’t fret––it is not in the dictionary. “Dandarians” represents the way poet Lee Ann Roripaugh, as a young child, hears her Japanese-born mother pronounce the word “dandelion.” Verbal miscues may seem a neutral––even, a lighthearted––point of departure, but, on the contrary, it serves as the gateway to a radical example of a person, wounded deeply, young, finding her way to voice (and to life), by way of slow-motion, un-romanticized observation of nature: from rain, to rivers, to insects, to the human body, and more. Perspectives of speaker-as-child and speaker-as-adult are interwoven in this powerful collection that enacts the process of survival in writing truth to power. In this case “power” being the lessons (from adults) that directly negate or shut down the body-truths of the young child as she experiences her world. Reading these poems taught me and continues to teach me long after I closed the back cover.
“I have a terrible secret,” the child-speaker says in the middle of the poem “Animoany” (“animoany” is the mother’s pronunciation of “anemone”). And though the full shudder of “terrible secret[s]” is not revealed until close to the end of the book, this talisman, which here refers to a lump the child has discovered and fears cancerous, gets to the core of what informs this speaker’s perspective. Life treats us in nonsensical ways. For the young child, Life is most frequently encompassed in the family, especially in interactions and communications between parent-and-child, or amongst parents and children. In the nuclear family, lessons of grave impact occur, as it were, in passing. What might feel like a gift for the child-giver (“you have to say dandy, then say lion”) can be received as altogether other by the receiver: “her slap flares a stung handprint on my cheek like alien handprints in the TV show Roswell.” The Roswell image in the previous example makes tangible the soul-alienating, surreal-world-making lessons this child is taught about her sense of her existence. Lessons that take a lifetime to “un-learn”: Who am I? Is the world bad? Does nature mean harm? Am I bad? Is my voice, my experience, honored? Am I safe here? Can I feel safe anywhere?
At first glance, the pages in Dandarians appear dense with words, but the paragraph-like stanzas read with lyric energy and flow. Perhaps some would call these poems essays. “Poem” seems accurate for this reader for several reasons. Poetry collections generally do not work like chronologies, and this book is not chronological. Taking in each piece the way it is visually presented, as a singular event, encourages pauses in the open space between works, as well as between stanzas, some of which are only one-line long. Each piece stands alone but also multiplies in meaning as it mixes with its poem-neighbors in the rest of the book.
The thirty poems, falling into five sections, greatly reward the reader who journeys through them in the order in which they are presented. Early on, violent verbs (chip, chipped, chips, needled, grind, scalpels, scald, etc.) accumulate over the course of the poems, having the effect of initially stimulating and eventually lulling the reader. Part V, especially the poem “Feminint” (“feminine”), renders everything––both struggles and comforts––in the poems previous, not only as sensical, but necessary. In Roripaugh’s poems, I see flashes of myself as the parent unable to stay with the pain of my child (because I never learned how to stay with and honor my own). Dandarians reminds me how important a single story is. How many stories coexist, even collide, within one childhood. And how important the body is to our understanding of ourselves and the world, especially vis-à-vis reading the body back to its (and our) initial points of frisson. We have to return to the scene of the crime, to pick up the pieces. Roripaugh’s courage and persistence show us how to do just that. Although it is never named in this way, shame and shaming are subjects, here. Our bodies hold our histories, our her-stories (what did we push down, cut away?). If we honor their murmurings, our bodies can teach us how to go forward in peace, and whole; we need to put down our sticks and listen, for our lives.