Deborah Digges, Struggling Without Light

April 18, 2009

“Once I asked myself, when was I happy?
I was looking at a February sky.
When did the light hold me and I didn’t struggle?”

–Deborah Digges, “Broom”

I guess the light stopped holding her.  Deborah Digges died a week ago, an apparent suicide, having fallen from the top of McGuirk Alumni Stadium at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

I’m saddened by the suicide of this remarkable poet.  And wondering why so many poets seem to burn so hot they flame out and can’t find their way out.

I was troubled by the suicide of biologist Nicholas Hughes, whose mother took her own life in a famous episode many years ago, earlier this month.  And I was troubled by the mass suicide of Indian farmers reported earlier this week.

Clearly Ms. Digges struggled.  Failed marriages.  The death of her last husband three years after marrying him. Rescuing her son from the brink.

Yet it doesn’t make it any easier, thinking of her standing at the top of that stadium in Amherst, contemplating or not. Did she hesitate, reconsider?

She was, as Tufts English Department Chairman Lee Edelman said, “a poet of breathtaking talent and astonishing verbal dexterity. Her poems join a keen and unsentimental intelligence with a passionate love for the particularities of things in their beauty, their transience, and their complexity.”

I remember when Ms. Digges’ first collection, Vesper Sparrows, came out; it was quite an achievement.   Poet Jorie Graham, whose work I greatly admired at the time (1986) wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Ms. Digges poems asked “of nature that it sing along and provide, at every turn, proof of our rightful place among things.”

She wrote from the intersection of humanity and nature, and often explored the interstices between the two.  She seemed filled with and fully committed to understanding our relationship with the natural world, but also our destructive tendencies.

Here is Deborah Digges’ poem “Trapeze,” in its entirety.  And a link to an audio file to hear her read it:

See how the first dark takes the city in its arms
and carries it into what yesterday we called the future.

O, the dying are such acrobats.
Here you must take a boat from one day to the next,

or clutch the girders of the bridge, hand over hand.
But they are sailing like a pendulum between eternity and evening,

diving, recovering, balancing the air.
Who can tell at this hour seabirds from starlings,

wind from revolving doors or currents off the river.
Some are as children on swings pumping higher and higher.

Don’t call them back, don’t call them in for supper.
See, they leave scuff marks like jet trails on the sky.

Trapeze by Deborah Digges

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