WILMINGTON — The title poem of Arlene Iris Distler's This Earth, This Body is drawn from “Sisters-A Love Poem,” which appears in the center of this wonderful, beautifully crafted collection by a Brattleboro writer.
The poem is one of a series portraying Distler's family (the “family/I was born into, a puzzle from the first/as much as I surely puzzled them”), and it deftly juxtaposes tenderness, grief, and difficult adult relationships.
In the opening lines, the poet addresses her younger sister, who professed outrage at not being warned soon enough that the eldest sister's “last breath/was coming.” That was impossible - “the weight of history-yours, hers/weighted on me, measured against her peace-it was no match.”
But the poet is traveling by train from the East to the Rockies, hoping her visit, like the train tracks across the plains, will “stitch/the rift left at our parting.”
Shifting then to memories of the dying eldest sister, she portrays a dramatic adventurer behind whose “Jackie Onassis shades” there lurked “imagined foes at the door.”
Yet when she was “trapped in a hospital room,” the dying woman dropped the pretensions of fancy hotels, room service, and makeup: “In her denouement she allowed herself/finally, this earth, this body.”
Arriving at the Rockies' Amtrak station, the poet meets the youngest sister, noting privately that “You have finally traded in high heels for Uggs,/though the glamour fur coat still lingers.” The fur coat mirrors the lost sister's love of the high life. And, as the warning in the driveway indicates, the younger sister also tends to present her life as an adventure:
§On the road by your home, this sign:
§“If you meet a mountain lion
§make yourself look tall,
§throw something, run.”
The quiet, understated twist subtly portrays two sisters whose sense of the dramatic made them very much alike. And the poet's forgiving, ironic understanding embraces them both.
* * *
The moods of the 57 poems in Distler's collection vary greatly, but the carefully crafted combination of mindful attention to detail and capacity for love that appears in “Sisters” characterizes them all.
Though the collection is not a poetic autobiography, one of the pleasures of reading it comes from its brief glimpses into the life of the poet whose voice we hear so unerringly.
In “Metta,” the poet and her friend lie in front of a fire, unearthing “memories of men in our childhood.” Readers shudder at the image of Uncle's “wayward urges/etched on young bodies,” but the two girls refuse to be re-formed by their experiences:
§We did not cauterize the wounds
§but defied them like those fire-eaters
§who swallow flame
§but are not burned by it.
When the poet is older, she attends a “Debutante Ball” - an event she remembers chiefly from looking at a picture of herself (“in my pink satin gown cornered/by Rorschach-blot wallpaper”). Retrospectively, she realizes hers is the only one of her parents' framed pictures that has faded, “like failure of emulsion to light/the life that didn't take.”
The writing is literally artful: the girls “etched” in secret, the debutante “cornered” by wallpaper hint at an unrecognized childhood and adolescence.
* * *
But then - and forever after - comes Vermont.
It begins, as so many Vermont lives began in the 1970s, with the poet and Alan, her husband, escaping corrupt civilization in an aging farmhouse:
§We stalked a poetic life, farmed,
§Indian cucumber root,
§Made peace with the spirits.
We catch only glimpses of this life, with its “isolation, hauling water,/cutting, splitting, stacking wood.” But the wonderful, retrospective “Going Home Again,” recognizes their illusions: “Those days seem like a play-/props assembled, lines read,//children raised, all so urgent then.”
The return to civilization was eventually accompanied by tremendous loss. The collection opens with five poems on Alan's “new frailness” and his death in her arms, his last breath “an ascending I could almost see,/like a perfect word, defining as it frees.”
If it seems odd to begin a collection with poems so deeply felt and mourning so conscious of the transitory nature of all things, it's not. For the still-young woman who lost her husband and with it a life “built on the rock/of his sure-footed steps” became, over the next three decades, the poet whose works the volume collects.
She found the courage beautifully expressed in “To Begin Again” to join another companion. She found the self-discipline to turn her insights and compassion into poetry, and as the founder of the Brattleboro writing group Write Action, she created a community in which poetry and prose could develop.
Every poem in this collection is a testimony to the woman who, grounded securely in “this earth, this body,” has quietly become one of the most perceptive and moving of Vermont's poets.