Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Gatherer’s Alphabet

I admire many small presses and another one has come to my attention with the publication of Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s Gatherer’s Alphabet, the inaugural winner of their California Poets Series Prize. Co-edited by two poets laureate of Santa Barbara, California, Gunpowder Press takes its name from the city’s namesake, Saint Barbara, the patron saint of gunpowder — the earliest known chemical explosive. Apparently, the editors recognize explosives when they see them. Gatherer’s Alphabet is filled with poems that burst from the pages with the most human and ghostly of communications. As Lee Herrick writes, “These luscious poems feel like small museums of wonder.”

Gatherer’s Alphabet arrives in four sections. I’ll give you enough of a taste from each one to compel you to need the rest. Kelly-DeWitt may not be known coast-to-coast yet, but she should be. Her poetry exercises such tenderness to the living, such sturdy delicateness, her observations run so deep that, at times, I’m reminded of Dickinson. So let us start with a poem from the first section, “I Ordered a Dragonfly.” I don’t know if I’ve ever read a more beautiful poem on the permanence of loss.

.

I ORDERED A DRAGONFLY

I ordered a dragonfly to take flight —
I launched a cliff swallow
like a paper airplane

out over the river
and I commanded them to find
the blue boat

that carried my father
away one November,
the boat that bore

my mother
with her paralyzed left side
to the mouth of the sea.

The dragonfly refused,
the cliff swallow circled back
to his perch in a willow,

as if they both knew
the boat was made of ghost-wood, sealed
with ghost-wax.

A poem in the second section centers it, if not the entire collection. “To My Mother on Her Seventy-Sixth Birthday” is a nine-part, powerful elegy in triplets, a form that gives it a hint of holiness. The entire poem must be read to revel in its emotion-full scope. Here is the first part:

1.

there was a secret
book in your heart, it was a
book of poetry

written by you if
you’d had a different life
with a grass linen

cover and embossed
letters like bamboo, it was
autographed by you

out of the other
out of the hull of the ship-
wrecked being I come


In the second section of the poem, the speaker communicates not as a ghost, but as the yet unborn:


2.

Who made the world? I
asked you once years before you
could hear, as the dust

of stars gathered me
from the void’s farthest edges
a drift of unborn

far out on the string
of you being I floated
I waved like a pale

handkerchief, hello


In the fourth section of the poem, the speaker laments the art of mothers never expressed, mothers

whose words were never

spoken, whose poems
were never known never sung
oh there are thousands

of such women, such
lovely women with poems
locked tight in their hearts

words chained to their lips…


How difficult it is not to put the entire poem here! And how grateful I am that Kelly-DeWitt’s words are not “locked tight” in her heart.

In the third section of the book, we witness the speaker’s maturity as she indicates the difficulties of a complex father while viewing the larger picture and finding the good. The poem is called “Innocent” and ends:

My father the serial liar, serial gambler,

serial loser, with the sweetness
of white moonflower

light in his heart.


Finally, the title poem appears in the last section of the book. It is the poet’s playful 26-line instruction manual and I’d like it posted on my own wall. Here are just a few lines plucked from this alphabet poem:

Archive day, night, spring, summer, autumn, winter — be an apothecary of wonder.
Arrange an arsenal of antidotes called art. Admire avocets and arachnids.

Lip the shine from snail trails, trout scales. Add “lusty” to your lexicon Listen.
Lap gold from Limoges.

Tease the shadows out of hiding. Tally the dead but also the truth of the living.

Yoke yourself to yellow, to the life-giving yarrow. Yearn Yawp. Yowl.

Zoom the zones of the ineffable — life zips by. Leave your mark like…Zorro!


Susan Kelly-DeWitt is the inaugural poet for the California Poets Series. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, she is the author of Gravitational Tug (Main Street Rag); Spider Season (Cold River Press); The Fortunate Islands (Marick Press) and a number of previous small press and online collections.

My gratitude goes to Kelly-DeWitt for these astonishing poems, and to Gunpowder Press for making them available to us.

Please leave your comments for this blog or email me directly and I will get them to Kelly-DeWitt.

Published by Katherine Hastings

Katherine Hastings is the author of three collections from Spuyten Duyvil Press (NYC): Shakespeare & Stein Walk Into a Bar (2016); Nighthawks (2014); and Cloud Fire (2012), as well as several chapbooks. Poet laureate emerita of Sonoma County, CA, Hastings edited Know Me Here — An Anthology of Poetry by Women; Digging Our Poetic Roots — Poems from Sonoma County; and What Redwoods Know — Poems from California State Parks, published as a benefit for the California State Parks Foundation when 70 parks were faced with permanent closure. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Book of Forms — A Handbook of Poetics (University Press of New England, Lewis Putnam Turco, editor); Verde Que Te Quiero Verde — Poems After Federico Garcia Lorca (Open Country Press, Natalie Peeterse, Editor); Changing Harm to Harmony — Bullies & Bystanders Project (Marin Poetry Center, Joseph Zaccardi, editor); Beatitude — Golden Anniversary (Latif Harris and Neeli Cherkovski, editors), among others. She hosted WordTemple on NPR affiliate KRCB FM from 2017 — 2017 and founded the WordTemple Poetry Series in Sonoma County (2006 — 2017) where she also taught craft-focused poetry workshops. Following the October 2017 wildfires, Hastings moved with her partner to Western New York in 2018. "Shakespeare & Stein Walk in to Bar is animated by the two most rewarding and replenishing of poetic forces: dexterous formal diversity and a fierce, unflinching searching..." — Malachi Black "Rooted in what Hastings calls the "momentary forever," these marvelous poems, so rich with detail and so full of duende, explore the paradoxes of transience. Yes, the poet reminds us: 'The alarm is set and ticking' for each least thing in the living world..." — Susan Kelly-DeWitt On Cloud Fire: "Lovely...it's your veiled history." — Lawrence Ferlinghetti "For Katherine Hastings, 'The mirror is a lake of longing'. Her poems are told us by 'a woman with a moon in her chest;' their surprising images embrace close observation, deeply dramatized love and losses, and have the power of crossing boundaries of spirit to reveal truths otherwise unseen." — Daniel Hoffman, US Poet Laureate, 1973 — 1974

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