As I read Dana Roeser’s fourth and newest collection of poems, the world is in quarantine as we wait out the COVID-19 pandemic. At first, we heard the coronavirus would mostly affect the already vulnerable, the elderly and the immunocompromised. Children were thought to be less at risk, and if you were between the ages of twenty and fifty, you might get sick, but you’d get over it like a bad flu. As if the more aware you are of your own mortality, the closer you are to it. Now we’re hearing—perhaps due to the hubris of youth and health—that twenty to fifty year-olds are increasingly requiring hospitalization. Businesses are closed, some possibly for good. Thousands are out of jobs. Hospitals are staggering under the influx. As I draft this, the future is a question mark:
… I hear today
the other side of the
arena was ‘badly damaged’—
would that be ‘torn off’? I didn’t
even see it, though I heard
a splintering crashing noise
that activated the
’This could be it’ idea.
Roeser’s speaker in these poems—as the collection reads like diary entries, progressing naturally if not chronologically—is a woman in her late fifties, a devotee of dressage, a mother, and a married woman with a crush on her optometrist. In the first poem, “Letter to Dr. M.,” she promises she is following his orders. Though he probably would not have approved of her riding a horse in a tornado, and rescuing the ones still stranded in the pasture, “Who are hysterical and afraid.” I look up, the thought occuring to me that we’re like those horses right now, out in “a debris-strewn / windy pasture in the dark / after.” Who will come for us in this storm?
Contained also within this space is the guilt for not having heeded warnings. If only we’d ______. And strains of survivor’s guilt: “My side of the street was clear.” The guilt turns quickly to anger, when contemplating her friend, Karin “who lay / in cardiac critical care / on life support—but with her / (heavily sedated) brain intact— / I was pretty ass angry about that …”
Tones of foreboding resonate greatly in our current predicament. In the title-bearing poem, “Transparent Things, God-Sized Hole,” it is October, and close to Halloween. Filmy, flimsy decorations swing around outside peoples’ homes. A declaration of foreboding: “The wind is its own kind of chaos.” The little red flags that cling to the trees, warnings. A found rosary like a bad omen. Anxiety in the absence of faith. It is the landscape of apocalypse. The little chihuahuas shivering in their thundershirts—they too, are us.
The anger on behalf—and in defense of—the vulnerable is a companion to fear. I think immediately of the public reaction to the images of beaches cluttered with Spring Breakers. And just as soon as this fear-anger flashes on the page, it is overtaken by the pure joy of Zumba classes: “I did the tossing yes // and a lot of pelvic / thrusting—fabulous—” Amidst the grief for an ailing father, worry for her friend and children, exuberance bursts through these “diurnal journal-type occasional poems.” Roeser includes lines from the fallen-from-grace comic, Louis C.K., from his old bit about how we take for granted things like flying through the air in a chair, and even titles one poem after Cindy from Marzahn, the brilliantly low-brow German comic. If the apocalypse is coming—or is already here—some of these lines seem to make the case for preserving a sense of humor, however it can be found.
Roeser’s wit and arresting self-awareness leave room for play on the page and in the stanzas themselves. Cursing the proprietors of her dry cleaner’s, she wonders, “Please Lord, where did // I get this mouth // on the front of my head.” Of a salon appointment abroad, “The hair / did not turn out // orange, an outcome / that I insisted upon—so the / main goal was // achieved. Avoidance / of red.” Of the “guard” of a church named after a shipwreck, “He got over // the salon thing, / watching those women / line up on the stoop // and smoke—and / God knows what other / Jezebel activities // over there.” Of herself: “Hot // mess exemplar.”
Hopeful puns have been made with regards to the year 2020 being “the year we see clearly.” I think of these poems, the speaker’s lust for her eye doctor with his magnifying lense: “I’ll be in to let / you shine that huge lens / with the shocking / light behind it in there …” There is an eroticism in these lines, yes, but something more fundamental: a desire for exposure and touch, for the doctor’s warm hands on her face—of being in someone else’s hands, a whole being, cared for. To be seen clearly: “Waiting with your clock face, // your lovely kind voice and / soft steady hands, peering // into my eyes’ dark depths / with your ‘ophthalmoscope,” I // just found out it’s called, its / searching magnifying light.”
In quarantine times, families are spending more time outdoors. In the absence of work and the onset of existential anxiety, more folks are out bicycling by the water, taking in a park at sunset. It is in our nature to make order from chaos, and in times of chaos to take comfort in the wild designs of nature. Much in the way we write to continue living, despite horror and loss, these poems are evidently the “transitional objects” allowing the speaker to continue functioning in the everyday banal while rocked internally with grief and loneliness. In this way, it is not a stretch to realize a tender, bold collection like Roeser’s is just the swaddling wrap we need to wait out this storm.
All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts, by Dana Roeser. Seattle, Washington: Two Sylvias Press, September 2019. 116 pages. $17.00, paper.
Juliana Converse is an experienced, versatile, and imaginative writer of fiction, nonfiction, and ad copy. julianaconverse.com.