- Dark and Beautiful Places
When I picked up this third book of poems by Duane Esposito and read the first piece, I was stunned by how intensely, hungrily I was drawn to this work, these luminously dark pieces, the spark and energy of life animating them, the to-the-bone truthfulness illuminating the places of living and of not-living. Many readers will recognize the headline above as the last lines of Denise Levertov’s “The Ache of Marriage” (1966). Until I encountered Esposito’s Bones, Levertov’s was the most moving and forthright statement of these truths I’d encountered. But the pieces in Bones that touch on this (virtually all of them)—this killing field of the soul—have supplanted Levertov’s expression for me. I recommend Esposito’s collection, and I recommend relaxing and breathing slowly amongst his words, letting them work their sly, dark magic.
Like Levertov’s well-known poem, the thrust of this book is about the sweet and dangerous pain of close connection. Not to suggest that these pieces are only about marriage and intimacy. They are about other things as well: disasters, politics, drugs, an absent father, the shock and agony of catastrophic illness, the altered and beautiful body. But the life partner, and the essentialness and pain of that partnership, seem to stand sentinel over all these pieces. Indeed, Esposito dedicates the collection first to his wife, secondly to his children—witnesses, all. But so are we witnesses. Duane Esposito is a writer who bares himself—and bares his love—radically, to the point of a psychic nakedness, a startled transparency, as if we had witnessed more than the daily coverings stripped away, but the skin itself. Like the touring Bodies exhibition, shocking us, educating us with a view of exposed organs and bone. “I am a wide killing area. / Angels have cut the ropes / to my invisible heaven.” Or, in “Skinny Daddy,”
Alarmed by a razor, I pick it up & cut my flesh, white as the moon, white as damage. It’s pornographic—quick & ugly— impossible violence in discrete locations. It does harm love, & I embrace an old news,
horizons I cannot see, the absence of touch.
Attentive to pain and loss, there is no wavering, no turning away. “If we fail to witness / If we fail to wake, // we embody disease & believe / the distance between here & heaven.”
A related and interesting thread throughout the book is the connection between the landscape and its human inhabitants. This relation is not only metaphysical like Bashö’s, not merely melancholic like Frost’s, not at all reassuring and good-humored like Tu Fu’s, but instead stark and stripped-down, as in “Anniversary,”
I’m staring at the black beneath your eyes. December’s moon is above the unconscious.
It’s criminal. The snow arrives. & everything follows fury.
Or ambiguously malevolent, as in “The Loons,”
But loons, once in the whitecaps of pain, have left these lakes for winter.
In dream they sleep near my head & twitch against my neck.
In addition to threats from the rest of the natural world, even ourselves—the closest human connections—are wanting, are as likely to cut us as cradle us. In Levertov’s “Ache,” the couple looks “for communion” in the “leviathan” of intimacy, for “joy, some joy / not to be known outside it.” Likewise, Esposito and his partner (his wife Lisa, as he nakedly acknowledges) pursue joy within the connective tissue of relationship.
Then I see I’ve uttered this description of our love—
a knotted, purple, nameless, strange affliction,
the reality of bones: the unnoticed Gods.
And “So much explodes. / I can’t reconcile memory with love— / desire with the history of starving.” All true, all true, these poems insist. And yet, connectedness is also essential. In “Spring,” there’s this:
Mostly, what I desire you don’t provide.
There isn’t even a sky above the ocean— no blue music to accompany our drowning.
But a few lines later, and near the end of the piece, we encounter
Our already aching...