Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews

That Which is Owed to Death

Don Mager
Main Street Rag, 1998, 56pp
ISBN: 0-9663293-0-9

reviewed by Chris Lott

That Which is Owed to Death is an oddly moving book of poems that both ponders the question posed by the title and is itself a possible answer.

The best poems to be found here are generally those which are not part of a series. The poems strength lies in their confident evocation of truths that we knew without even being aware of it:

At the last moments,
my wish is that my body might still be moving.
Let it quiver and jerk, if it must…

begins the poem "Deathbed" before working its way vividly through to the mesmerizing final stanza:

But whatever movement erupts, let my body stage it,
not the pin of light that rides a screen
to graph an imperceptible pulse
as it flickers lower, lower, low
until the wavering line is all that's left.
What does a line know about
how my body lifted to the crest of sex,
how it ran through the wash of winter rain for miles,
heaved snow over mounds as tall as itself.

How it danced.

It is in these personal and generally first-person poems that Mager's talent is most evident. His imagery is crisp and bears the weight of metaphor below the surface while riding smoothly through even the most emotional waters.

Unfortunately, too many of the poems in this volume suffer from the lack of these very qualities. The initial series of poems, designed to be set to music, suffers because their emotional urgency is tied to the events that are being told rather than the poems that are telling them. The intensity of issues such as homeless, drug abusing children, starvation and Angolan mine fields is indisputable, but the poems themselves don't add anything to these outlines. As documentary pieces— and probably as complements to musical compositions— they function adequately, but there is something missing when they are presented as poems alone on a page. The series of poems documenting Emma Mae, an old woman nearing death, suffers from the same emotional lack of luster.

This is not to discount the series. The "Emma Mae" poems are worth reading, if only for the vivid, interesting character they present, and "Passage Work", a series of poems "designed to be a gradual diminuendo or fading" works perfectly without their accompanying music.

Finally, the title poem consists of 21 "fragments" distributed throughout the book. Some of them are stunning:

Grief is quite easy after all.
We had not expected it to be so.
Like walking into a perfect painting,
suddenly here we are, all in one place…

But many of them, like some of the other long poems in the book, suffer from an overabundance of abstraction which is probably very meaningful to the author, but less so to the outside reader. I know what Mager is getting at with lines like:

remembering is not forgetting's
opposite. They both come
at odd times. Neither is ever
complete. Each in its sweetness,

Disconnected from detail and material grounds, such abstractions point us in the direction of emotion without actually conveying it.

However, this is not to discredit the accomplishment of That Which is Owed to Death. It merely points to the risks taken when a poet chooses to grapple directly with such looming ideas as death, life and memory. Despite some missteps, this volume succeeds where other, lesser poets have failed. Many books of poetry are like battles that are either won or lost. That Which is Owed to Death is more akin to a battle where the larger objective— a witnessing of the centrality of death and memory to the meaning of life itself— is achieved despite inevitable losses along the way.


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