On Ansie Baird's "In Advance of All Parting"
"After great pain, a formal feeling comes--" wrote Emily Dickinson on one her best known poems about processing grief through the strictures of language. In Ansie Baird's debut collection In Advance of All Parting, the winner of the fourteenth annual White Pine Press Poetry Prize, formal feeling and Baird's own grief-tempered voice lead us from the fissures of legacy and marriage, through the epiphanies of art and the sorrows of loss, to the "wild interiority" of her own spirit.
Although Baird has been one of the Buffalo area's most highly regarded and widely published poets over the past three and a half decades, In Advance of All Parting is her first full length collection. A mentor to successive generations of women poets in her longtime role as Writer-in-Residence at Buffalo Seminary, and more recently, one of the co-editors of Earth's Daughters magazine, she is known for the high standards she sets for herself, and for art in general. Half a lifetime in the making, this book is well worth the wait.
From the very first poem in the collection, "Genealogy," in which Baird traces her real and imagined lineage through the tangle of myth and history, only to feel the presence of those actual and invented ancestors now visiting her parlor in the solitude of her later years ("familiar faces I can count on,/ Companions when the roof begins to shatter"), In Advance of All Parting reads more like the "Selected Poems" of a significant mid-career poet than the uneven modulations of voice in a typical "debut" collection.
The book's first section consists primarily of poems about Baird's late mother (a Parisian-born painter) and father (Oscar Silverman, the noted scholar and longtime chair of the then University of Buffalo's English Department in the 1950's), their unhappy marriage and even more unhappy divorce, and the premature death of her sister Clare. All are seemingly witnessed by a younger woman poet, but with the older, wiser, more exacting version of herself clearly looking in over her shoulder and narrating in a measured, unsentimentalized voice. "Sorrow sits in my pocket/ like an old stone," she writes in "Beach Comber," "...[It is] indistinguishable from countless/ others. Not semi-precious. But/ it's mine, so I say it's one in a million,/ my hard sorrow, my own stone."
These poems about an unrecoverable past are followed by a second section consisting of poems that consider Baird's "sentimental education" and the consolations of art and literature, including two poems for the late Hayden Carruth--one of many poets she has maintained correspondence with over the years--and "Unframed, Like Lace," a fine poem about "a decorative material/ most of which is not there./ But what's left out is/ just as clear/ as what's left in./ Mystical maybe; maybe/ fragile as the body/ on the page." It's one of the most elegant descriptions of minimalism ever written by a non-minimalist.
The emotional carnage of betrayal and divorce has been a rich source of material for many women writers over the years, but the poems in the third section of this collection establish a contemporary high water mark for disillusionment, vulnerability, and grieving over a broken marriage that won't soon be matched by poets of Baird's post Silvia Plath generation. In a sequence of ever more poignant metaphors for her own psychic devastation, she first considers the broken shards of a "Snow Globe," with its "two small plaster people...a man and wife" unequally liberated by the circumstances of their shattering. Then it's on to a woman castaway walking a beach, coming across a message in a sealed bottle she recognizes as the handwriting of her beloved. "Ahoy!" he writes, "This is just to say/ I've never been happier. Don't try to find me." In "The Stripped Branch," she commiserates with the old woman in the William Carlos Williams poem "Spring and All" who moans "I can't die. I can't die."
What prevents these poems from slipping over into bathos is Baird's superb command of brittle humor and ironic detail, her subtle shifts of tone, and perhaps most impressively, her mastery of craft and poetic form to impose the order of artfulness on her despond. "Remedy for Wreckage" begins like an updated Dorothy Parker quip ("If you cannot fix the marriage, fix the face/ Try surgery for lids and chin and neck/ When he has vanished, not leaving a trace") before turning darker and even more cynical in the last stanza:
But if he's fled with one you've never met,
And you can purchase solace with a check
So you no longer yearn for his embrace,
Then leave the marriage shattered, fix the face.
"I like being frisked at the airport./ Where else can I ever get touched?" she asks in another poem that plumbs the depths of her loneliness and vulnerability even as she wraps it with the thinnest, glittering membrane of rhyming metrical wit. Form never fails her, even when the comfort of a simple human touch does.
The final poem in the section, "Legacy" is seemly addressed to her children ("Someday when we are dead/ or maybe senile, you'll write the murky fable/of our lives...") and sadly echoes the earlier poems about her own parents' unhappiness.
The final two sections of this life encompassing volume deal with travel, aging, and the necessity of reinventing one's self after the trauma of divorce. The collection's title poem, very much in this spirit, is an anxious monologue about the need to reassert order (in the sense of a weekly routine), following the loss of a close friend. Elsewhere, her tone shifts to the elegiac or the (surprisingly) vernacular. Writing of rediscovering desire in her new, unmarried life, she observes "I needed to recall/ what makes for ecstasy is incompletion."
Perhaps the poem that marks the most interesting shift in her newer work is "The Complete Development of Green," where a peevish narrator complains about know-it-all restaurateurs, music mavens, travel agents, and the general presumptuousness of men, but then veers from tight tercets into a kind of fantasy sequence where she is transformed from a snowbound ironist to an acolyte in the psychic territory of new personal growth:
So you are making your way towards
Perfection over a snowy field when,
Without warning, everything begins
Turning green. Oh, great, you say,
Green is taking over the universe.
Blooming green, serene green, soft
Silver and insistent green. You move
Into it grudgingly, only to find yourself
Clad in the deep radiance of new leaves.
By the time she gets to "Bath at Evening" the final poem in the collection, she is finally at ease with her own aging body and comfortable in her own skin. "The consolation of water/ permeates everything," she writes, "...Nothing is wrong/ with glory in the woman."