Traveling through grief

Issue 2020, vol. 74

Review of Jane Rohrer, Acquiring Land: Late Poems (DreamSeeker Poetry Series, Cascadia Publishing, 2020)

As I sit down to write this review, our world is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. There are travel bans, schools are closed, social gatherings are limited to five people or fewer and we have been told to stay at home. This while I am reviewing Rohrer’s book, which is largely about travel.

She said that after her husband’s death “travel returned [me] to life and writing” (52). One wonders how she is doing now, and what would have happened had she not been allowed to travel at that time in her life.

After reading this book, I feel like Rohrer is a friend, a friend I’ve never met. I know she would have found another way to thrive again, and certainly her poetry reflects her tenacity, strength and inner beauty.

Acquiring Land is divided into three sections. The first two, “Home Movies” and “Visiting the World,” contain poetry. The last section is an interview of the poet by her granddaughter.

Rohrer is not afraid to tell us her stories: of her father’s death, her father “who [had] been mean” (35); of her sister’s suicide; of the years she lived as a widow in “grief’s exquisite sphere” (29); and of her travels and need for permission to “goof off” (50).

Do not think you, the reader, are not part of the story. You will be “audience” and actor and will “see through the curtain” (21).

In some of Rohrer’s poems, there is a sense you cannot escape family, cannot escape history, your own or the world’s. A few poems feel like watching home movies, commercial films or a slide show of things not always pleasant. At one point, she pleads, “[M]emory save me from memories” (22). But she will “enter [the] terrible stanza, [the] unfurnished room, where the dead do speak, don’t say they don’t” (25).

Rohrer will not flinch, will not look away. She will bear witness, tell us what she sees, what she hears, with honesty. Her life will change accordingly.

In the title poem “Acquiring Land,” Rohrer collects places and learns that “leaving after leaving, [is] the only sure thing we do but we do not know it” (33). She is “permanently on the move like everyone else . . . [she] dare not stop . . . on a cold day in Paradise [she] must have some place to go” (34).

There is a need for “more and more addresses” (34). She talks about the smallness of life, the isolation from the world and the egocentric worldview she or her family had in the past. If you isolate yourself to one place, whether in marriage, or as a child, or as a family, you can become “absolute and confused . . . in [your] unconfusion . . . rock-like . . . immutable” (23).

It is in the collecting of places that one can find a little freedom, some respite from one’s own life. But even as she travels and expands her world, she is still “sentenced to be . . . a tourist” (42). Rohrer understands the dichotomy, and she helps us to understand as well. She helps us to become better world citizens.

Perhaps my favorite poem is “Turn Signal,” with its exquisite use of language and its surprising phrases. The poet watches a man who is dying, but she does not understand he is dying. There are signs and secrets. There is a view of that “real estate” (37) only “disembodied people could occupy” (37).

Another favorite is “Dream of the Nile” in which she almost travels with her late husband, Warren. But he cannot go with her, cannot board the ship. He stands on “shore . . . exhausted as the dead come to be” (41).

And her poem “That Is All” is simply brilliant. I have read it repeatedly and each time feel something new. The poet will not stay “crucified in place” (28). I would love to talk to Rohrer and to you the reader about this poem.

The last section of the book is the interview. It seems an idea reminiscent of a poetry magazine or journal. You feel like you are sitting in the poet’s living room overhearing a family conversation. But the questions seem somewhat limiting. They are focused on the idea of “studio.” I think the interview could have gone elsewhere and had more energy if it had not been limited to that. But the interview is still a worthy read and you learn more about the author’s life. I love the last sentence, in which Rohrer gives her granddaughter advice, support and love.

So buy the book, read the poems, travel with Jane Rohrer while being stuck in your home. And please do not let her be that poet “who writes messages to the world and gets them back unread” (30). Learn what her messages mean, learn about the fragility and permanence of life and thus enrich your own life.