A few years ago, in an interview with Poets and Writers Magazine, Claudia Keelan recounts teaching Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as the first plane hit the Twin Towers on September 11th. She writes, “…the insistence of self being other—it was the only word for the moment and continues to be, I believe, no matter what polarity you describe: man-woman, citizen-nation, nation-world. Any definition that does not take the Whole into consideration is an incomplete one. Radical freedom is the only whole measure—that’s what I hope to teach, to reach.” In her sixth collection of poems, Missing Her, Keelan indeed keeps her eye on the “Whole” or what she calls the “Beloved Plurality” as she writes of loss as both a private and communal experience. As in Jacques Roubaud’s Some Thing Black, or Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife, we find in this book the poet using intelligence and sensitivity to grapple with death as a personal, philosophical (and here, political) event that marks the outside boundary of living. Keelan does not treat this boundary as absolute, urgently writing, “You are not an elsewhere!/ Passing through me/ Passing through you” while at the same time showing that such permeability does not negate the difficulty of loss. In this book, memory, history, and the conviction that human beings are deeply connected make absolute loss something of an impossibility.
The underlying philosophy of these poems recalls Spinoza’s assertion that “above all things it is profitable to men to…unite themselves to one another by bonds which make them as one man,” and proceeds from Keelan’s keen observation that the self is “such a small arc in the tapestry.” Thus, there is a genuine humility of thought in this book, an imperative not to let our suffering alienate us from a world that needs our attention. In fact, the book’s first poem presents the reader with a reminder of one loss we would, in fact, all experience—the loss of the planet. The earth, in this poem, is reduced to “a ball you could hold in your hand,” while an unspecified speaker ambivalently remarks, “I died I guess free.” This line shrugs its shoulders so hard that the reader is compelled to ask what it means to be free, and if it is a state or action that can ever be qualified with a mitigating “I guess.” The resonances of this strong first poem are global, ecological, and underscore the fact that Keelan’s interests are indeed ethical as well as aesthetic or philosophical, which is born out in prior collections like Utopic (Alice James Books, 2002) and The Devotion Field (Alice James Books, 2004).
In the eight-part series “Everybody’s Autobiography,” that constitutes the middle of the book, Keelan gives historical context to the life and death of her father, beginning with a painful and intimate description of “fire men and paramedics,/ the coroner from Chicago smoking on the porch, and the captain saying/ would you like to pray?” She then proceeds to recount the beginning of her father’s life, offering a broad historical context to the moment he “fell into this world from a woman’s body,” citing Lenin, Coolidge, and Miss America 1924. Keelan applies the lesson that one should “distrust/ distinctions that separated the simple subject from/ the compound subject,” as she weaves the birth of her father into the history of the Southern Pacific railroad, the deaths of eight farmers, and finally the rising power of the oil industry, which culminates in 3,000 dead on September 11th, which occurred just a few months after the death of her father. These poems offer a remarkable vision of the collective and the individual existing within, without, and alongside one another.
Just as “Everybody’s Autobiography” directs the reader’s attention to the events surrounding the birth of her father, in her poems “Little Elegy (Eros)” and “Little Elegy (Eve),” Keelan expands her vision of connectedness to one that includes the startling beauty of birth as a corrective for violence. After wryly recounting women wielding the word “cunt,” she writes:
No heart, no bone
No sister enemies
No source or power
In the middle of me
Though sometimes, something true
Which is agape
The tenderness and vulnerability implied in these final two lines is the kind of surprising, deeply moving moment that marks the series of elegies at the beginning of the book. The Greek agape, which we understand to mean an unconditional, parental love, doubles as the English “agape,” the opening of the woman in birth, the opening that births love where so many have imposed violence. Elsewhere, Keelan’s observation of violence against women feels more outraged:
The world says she wants it
She says she wants it—
All to disappear
But she’s on her knees
She’s on her knees in a series
(“The Sister Worlds (Antigone)”)
Here, Keelan draws attention to the commodification and degradation of the female body; when she refers to motherhood later in the poem (as a disembodied speaker asks, “Are you my mother?”), it is not affirming or corrective to violence, but rather leaves the reader with a feeling of being haunted by nightmarish experience of violence and loss.
On the whole, however, these poems treat death not as an end in itself but as a way of understanding the whole tapestry of human experience, the vast and worthy question of what it means to be alive through a meditation on death. In one of the book’s most unique turns of thought, the speaker positions herself subtly as moving from subject to object, first person to third person, the natural abandonment of “I” that occurs in death. In the book’s final poem, she writes:
So you can see me As you see her
As I give up me For generations To prepare by
As the first person (me) becomes the third person (her), Keelan reminds us of the natural passing of the subject, the “I,” into object when a person dies (and importantly, one that has consequences for future generations—again, recalling the ethical dimension of existence). It is an interesting thought experiment, to imagine this passing of “me” into “her,” and one advised by Petrarch when he claims “constant meditation upon our own mortality” is necessary in the pursuit of happiness. Of course, happiness does not seem the goal of the speaker (though one poem intelligently observes that “women of my generation don’t say joy/ Playing with (t)he (i)r happiness”—in such a way as to suggest that the inability to say joy is itself worth mourning) so much as to ask, if the self is implied in the other, if our human experience is, on some level, deeply communal, what does that mean for death? If “self” is not totally discrete, and likewise “other,” then can death be as absolute as it sometimes seems?
In Missing Her, Keelan gives the reader occasion to consider these questions and to reflect on what recognition of humanity as a “Whole” might ethically demand of the small selves that constitute it. In a world that is increasingly isolated (communicating more and more at a virtual remove), yet increasingly interconnected via the same technology that removes us, I deeply admire work that insists on the importance—perhaps to our survival as a species—of actively remembering the Whole of which we are a part, allowing that to guide us toward meaningful action (as action without reflection is likely to perpetuate violence—and reflection without action has no capacity to intervene). Whatever the myriad roles a book of poems might assume, to encourage critical reflection on the ideas that help us move away from a selfish destruction of a planet, as well as the oppression and degradation of its people, is a worthy endeavor. One may find oneself attracted to or repulsed by a certain aesthetic—fragmentation or traditional forms, abstract language or pop-culture references and concrete language—but while we may have different aesthetic preferences, there are books that, for the quality of their thought and the urgency of their observations, make themselves worthy of our attention. Claudia Keelan’s Missing Her is one such book.