There is a great deal to be learned from reading Michael Kleber-Diggs’ Worldly Things. Like how to write a poem that means it, for example. There is a precision to his work, which makes each of his poems feel like a gift because of the care that was put into their composition. His poem, “Seismic Activities,” for example, which uses the contrapuntal form, and which compares the death of his father with the birth of his daughter, is worth the price of the collection itself.
As I was reading this book—such a fine book—I was inspired to treat my own poems with the kind of care Kleber-Diggs puts into his own craft. Not just that, though. The level of tenderness and wisdom in his poems not only makes me want to be a better poet; it also makes me want to be a better person. I can’t think of higher praise.
The collection, Kleber-Diggs’ first full-length, ranges widely between the personal and the political. Poems in the collection interrogate the murder of his father while paradoxically acknowledging that answers can’t be found, but we are reminded how the act of interrogation can settle us so that we may live with the traumas that have shaped us, while also preventing re-traumatization. Thus, Kleber-Diggs writes through the pain, and in doing so, reveals a hard-earned wisdom. In the poem “Superman and My Brother, Spiderman and Me” he writes of his father’s murder:
Lost for months in our bedroom, our desperate island,
we began to confront a loss that reveals itself still, spent
our allowance on comic books, dreamed of rough places
made plain, tried to hew hope from a mountain of despair.
Which might as well be ars poetica, at its heart, because this is what Kleber-Diggs does with his poems, even those that seek to confront violence against black communities—he tries and tries again to hew hope from a mountain of despair, and he does it. He really does it.
Consider the ways a poet can process such injustices and the range of emotions that can steer a poem. Righteous anger is appropriate. Disgust is appropriate. Despair is appropriate. All are valid emotions when you regularly find your community dangerously, fatally at odds with America. Yet, Kleber-Diggs walks us through it the way a father might. For sure, this is a paternal collection, but not at all in a pejorative way. Kleber-Diggs is, after all, a father himself in the new tradition of fathers who aren’t afraid to feel and to let their feelings be known.
In the poem, “After They Left,” he imagines a world without police, one in which a neighborhood heals itself through self-care and careful tending, and the poem does the kind of restorative work a poem should do, which is to say, it functions as a balm against harsh reality. Or as he writes in the poem, “Where our wounds were acute, we applied / more salve, calling our injured closer in, as we/ sang to them and gave them more fruit.” A poem can be a window into a better truth. Kleber-Diggs enacts this for us repeatedly in this perfect debut.
Worldly Things, by Michael Kleber-Diggs. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, June 2021. 96 pages. $22.00, hardcover.
Sonia Greenfield (she/they) is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, Letdown (White Pine Press, 2020) and Boy with a Halo at the Farmer’s Market (Codhill Poetry Prize, 2015). Her chapbook, American Parable, won the 2017 Autumn House Press chapbook prize, and her forthcoming chapbook, Helen of Troy Is High AF, will be out with Harbor Editions in January 2023. Her work has appeared in the 2018 and 2010 Best American Poetry, Southern Review, Washington Post, Willow Springs, diode, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Minneapolis where she teaches at Normandale College, edits the Rise Up Review, and advocates for both neurodiversity and the decentering of the cis/het white hegemony.
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