Review of Worldly Things. Michael Kleber-Diggs. Milkweed. June 8, 2021. $22.
Worldly Things is the name of Michael Kleber-Diggs’s first collection of poetry, and the phrase “worldly things” also gives one of the poems in the book its title. Preceding that poem, though, the writer shoulders the label himself. He writes:
[…] Our moment here is small.
I am too–a worldly thing among worldly things–
one part per seven billion. Make me smaller still.
Repurpose my body. Mix me with soil and seed,
compost for a sapling. Make my remains useful,
wondrous. Let me bloom and recede, grow
and decay, let me be lovely yet
temporal, like memories, like mahogany.
This poem is one of my favorites in the volume. I love what it hopes for. I love that it does not, like so many poems, petition for immortality of some stripe. Instead, it asks for a perishable beauty and, afterward, usefulness–such a modest request. And this modesty is especially concentrated in the lines “let me be lovely yet / temporal” thanks to the line break, which causes the word “yet” to shift under the reader. Pause at the line’s end, and “yet” seems to be an adverb of time, signaling that the speaker wants to become lovely before it is too late, to slip beauty in just under the wire. Finish the clause, though, and that “yet” bridges “lovely” and “temporal,” admitting some uneasiness about pairing those adjectives but also the resolve to marry them anyway, to glory in both blossoming and decay.
So often, after all, poets write in order to stave off decay. Elegies are obvious examples, but poems waylay us for much less. Think of Dickinson’s stop-motion dawn, the sunrise she relates “a ribbon at a time..” Think of Gregory Pardlo, stalling a jump-roper about to “ente[r] the winking” of “Double Dutch.” To enlarge the small moment, to prolong the flickering of a mortal’s influence–that’s poetry’s bread and butter. In part, I suppose, the lyric cannot do otherwise. Something in the way it turns and thickens language resists time’s current, whether the poem works in marble or only stirs a little honey into the stream, adding to its viscosity.
That said, and his command to make him “compost for a sapling” notwithstanding, Kleber-Diggs’ poems do frequently work against mortality. His father finds an afterlife in this collection, as do Freddie Gray and George Floyd and others whose “brown bodies” violence, aimless or decided upon, has “unmade.” A number of this book’s poems rail against that unmaking of mortals.
To that end, some of Worldly Things edges toward elegy, too, preserving the names of (some of) the Black and brown people unmade at the hands of police. For example, “America is Loving Me to Death” crowds a line with eight, all turned into inquiries: “Tamir? Sandra? Medgar? George? Breonna? Elijah? Philando? Eric?” and because none of these people, called by their first name, can answer, the poem keeps a kind of unrequited love hanging on the air, delaying their disappearance. Of course these names also conjure other unanswerable questions; they hang on the air as outrage, as outcry, as well, and the poem, consequently, works against the forgetting, willful or otherwise, that would sweep or spirit the call to protest away.
Naming is only the most direct way that Kleber-Diggs opposes the brutal, premature mortality of Black and brown people, however. In addition, he answers such “unmaking” through the witness of making. Which is not to say that his poems try to reknit or rekindle the lives unmade–or even to immortalize those killed. Instead, this collection counters their erasure. It sings the loss of “Joshua / Dyer, age 34, a passenger in a car trying to get away” and the loss of the poet’s father “killed / by a different man in a different city with a different gun / for different reasons.” It crafts a straitened anthem of dissent inside the formal constraints of an acrostic golden shovel. And around the sanctioned account “Man Dies After Coma,” it voices the struck-through story of Freddie Gray’s killing.
In these verses and others, loss laps at the edges of Worldly Things. And Kleber-Diggs does spend
images and other devices
meant to survive [him]
on trying to stall loss or, at least, to bear witness to it.
But this book is rich with finding and being found, too. The writer, on teaching his daughter to drive, remarks on her bearing–how she “sits like a dancer, tall and open”–and says “You are the kind of artist I want to be.” In the telling, he slows this rite of passage, but he slows it just enough to savor its passing sweetness. Likewise, lying in bed at night as a car’s headlights slant through the windows, he arrests the ostensibly ordinary experience with simile, writing “Light pans my dark / bedroom like a copier / scans an image”–but, again, he detains the moment only briefly, only in order to save the fleet beauty from the rush of phenomena a day contains.
Life, after all, does go by in a rush. “Our moment here is small,” the poet writes in “Gloria Mundi.” The book as a whole, though, even as it decries the life cut short, relishes our being mortal, our having the chance to “bloom and recede.” Which is, in the end, what I suspect these poems want for all of us. I suspect that as in the elegy he writes for George Floyd, Michael Kleber-Diggs “hope[s] so hard / it almost ma[kes] a prayer” that somehow we will all find our way into becoming “lovely yet / temporal.”