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Deborah Digges

1950–2009

On February 6, 1950, Deborah Digges was born in Jefferson City, Missouri. She received degrees from the University of California and the University of Missouri, as well as an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

She is the author of four books of poetry, including Rough Music (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Prize, and most recently The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). Her first book, Vesper Sparrows (Carnegie-Melon University Press, 1986), won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize from New York University. Digges wrote two memoirs, Fugitive Spring (1991) and The Stardust Lounge (2001).

Her poems often rely on the relationship between humans and nature, the primitive urges of discovery and rediscovery, and the physical consequences of such momentary losses of the self. As Willard Spiegelman wrote for The Yale Review: "Thinking through images, Digges wends her insistent, surprising way down a path alternately straight and curving, placid and perilous."

When asked by the New York Times to name a book of poetry published in the last 25 years that has been personally meaningful, Sharon Olds responded that Digges's Trapeze "is a book that sort of threw me to my knees...a book that shows me how much truth, and feel-of-truth—embodying profound complex mourning—can be sung."

Digges received grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation and taught in the graduate writing divisions of New York University, Boston University, and Columbia University. She lived in Massachusetts, where she was a professor of English at Tufts University. She died on April 10, 2009.

Deborah Digges

By This Poet

8

Darwin's Finches

1 
My mother always called it a nest, 
the multi-colored mass harvested

from her six daughters' brushes, 
and handed it to one of us

after she had shaped it, as we sat in front 
of the fire drying our hair.

She said some birds steal anything, a strand 
of spider's web, or horse's mane,

the residue of sheep's wool in the grasses 
near a fold

where every summer of her girlhood 
hundreds nested.

Since then I've seen it for myself, their genius—
how they transform the useless.

I've seen plastics stripped and whittled 
into a brilliant straw,

and newspapers—the dates, the years—
supporting the underweavings.


2 
As tonight in our bed by the window 
you brush my hair to help me sleep, and clean

the brush as my mother did, offering 
the nest to the updraft.

I'd like to think it will be lifted as far 
as the river, and catch in some white sycamore,

or drift, too light to sink, into the shaded inlets, 
the bank-moss, where small fish, frogs, and insects

lay their eggs. 
Would this constitute an afterlife?

The story goes that sailors, moored for weeks 
off islands they called paradise,

stood in the early sunlight 
cutting their hair. And the rare

birds there, nameless, almost extinct, 
came down around them

and cleaned the decks 
and disappeared into the trees above the sea.

The Leaves

I can bless a death this human, this leaf 
the size of my hand. From the life-line spreads

a sapped, distended jaundice 
toward the edges, still green.

I've seen the sick starve out beyond 
the grip of their disease.

They sleep for days, their stomachs gone, 
the bones in their hands

seeming to rise to the hour 
that will receive them.

Sometimes on their last evening, they sit up 
and ask for food,

their faces bloodless, almost golden, 
they inquire about the future.

                    *

One August I drove the back roads, 
the dust wheeling behind me.

I wandered through the ruins of sharecrop farms 
and saw the weeds in the sun frames

opening the floorboards. 
Once behind what must have been an outhouse

the way wild yellow roses bunched and climbed 
the sweaty walls, I found a pile of letters,

fire-scarred, urinous. 
All afternoon the sun brought the field to me.

The insects hushed as I approached. 
I read how the world had failed who ever lived behind

the page, behind the misquoted Bible verses, 
that awkward backhand trying to explain deliverance.

                    *

The morning Keats left Guys Hospital's cadaver rooms 
for the last time, he said he was afraid.

This was the future, this corning down a stairway 
under the elms' summer green,

passing the barber shops along the avenue that still 
performed the surgeries, still dumped

blood caught in sand from porcelain washtubs 
into the road-side sewer. From those windows,

from a distance, he could have been anyone 
taking in the trees, mistaking the muse for this new

warmth around his heart—the first symptom 
of his illness—that so swelled the look of things,

it made leaves into poems, though he'd write later 
he had not grieved, not loved enough to claim them.

Telling the Bees

It fell to me to tell the bees, 
though I had wanted another duty—
to be the scribbler at his death, 
there chart the third day's quickening. 
But fate said no, it falls to you 
to tell the bees, the middle daughter. 
So it was written at your birth. 
I wanted to keep the fire, working 
the constant arranging and shifting 
of the coals blown flaring, 
my cheeks flushed red, 
my bed laid down before the fire, 
myself anonymous among the strangers
there who'd come and go. 
But destiny said no. It falls 
to you to tell the bees, it said. 
I wanted to be the one to wash his linens, 
boiling the death-soiled sheets, 
using the waters for my tea. 
I might have been the one to seal 
his solitude with mud and thatch and string, 
the webs he parted every morning, 
the hounds' hair combed from brushes, 
the dust swept into piles with sparrows' feathers. 
Who makes the laws that live 
inside the brick and mortar of a name, 
selects the seeds, garden or wild, 
brings forth the foliage grown up around it 
through drought or blight or blossom,
the honey darkening in the bitter years,
the combs like funeral lace or wedding veils 
steeped in oak gall and rainwater, 
sequined of rent wings. 
And so arrayed I set out, this once
obedient, toward the hives' domed skeps 
on evening's hill, five tombs alight. 
I thought I heard the thrash and moaning 
of confinement, beyond the century, 
a calling across dreams, 
as if asked to make haste just out of sleep. 
I knelt and waited. 
The voice that found me gave the news. 
Up flew the bees toward his orchards.

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