In Deborah Poe’s new book, the author of Elements shifts her poetic researches from the building blocks of matter to the building blocks of memory. Her title, Keep, is both an archaic noun, the keep of a castle, and one of the commonest verbs. Keep is a command. It reminds us that remembering is not a choice. Each person’s memory is a vast, mostly unconscious construction, always already there, always changing, that can provide the materials for conscious constructions. Keep follows this trajectory—from neurobiology to inescapable memories to what we can make out of those memories—“every page more like a drawer, a compartment, or a box,” the verbal equivalent of El Lissitzky’s prouns, a high point in constructivist art.
Where poetry meets Zen meets neuroscience, keep maps the magical space of the Middle Way, in which phenomena arise and disappear continuously. Arranged in four interrelated sections, “cartography,” “coordinates,” “signs,” and “prouns,” Poe’s cosmopolitan charms loop back and echo as dream-like traces of memory, of being alive. Mapping a “sensual infrastructure” beyond our naming, “the way memories reside between now and letter after,” Poe’s is the music we need now, the “song on the stairs in the middle of the night.”
“Keep” (the word implies duration, continuity, safety) does what poetry is supposed to do: take you further and deeper than mind, senses, and language ordinarily will. Memory, space, place, perception, personhood, fold and unfold in these careful poems, honed by fearless exploratory intelligence. “You don’t have to understand. What is lost when you ask why.”
How the body holds and releases experience, how sensory becomes sensuous, how perception informs memory with meaning—all of this is disclosed from the interiority Deborah Poe explores in keep. These intense and pensive poems model how perception directs us to what matters in this, the ephemeral moment of our perceiving (“Presence flutters why in the meaning(less).” Poe writes that body “and future exacerbate each other,” and the reader feels the ache—part elegiac and part erotic. In that tension these poems find an interplace in which “over and over windows burst wide open.”