In her debut poetry collection, A List of Things I’ve Lost, Tiffany Babb lingers on what remains of the ephemeral. When grief takes many shapes and memory appears ever fragmented, how may we live in the patchy present that refuses to detach itself from the past?
As the poet notes in “Living Memory”: “We know the cost of trying to heal / when there is no healing to be done,” the conundrum seems impassable—to preserve or to let go, or both? How to make peace and coexist with our grief, with life as is?
It was not until I encountered the subtitle of the titular poem buried in the middle of the book— “A list of things I’ve lost or: How to adjust to a life without a father”—that I realized the poet was dealing with loss much greater than what the poem overtly suggests:
There is a permanency to lost things,
and I track each moment
I had a thing last, determine
what I might have done
to spare its fate.
Babb does not approach grief directly. Instead, the poet draws attention to her surrounding environment, where domestic objects and cityscapes come to life in her concise, Poundian imagery: “A blast of air, and the drizzle shifts to a torrent. / For a moment, everything freezes. Then, mass exodus— / to awnings, subway stations, coffee shop alcoves.” Yet her tone frequently turns introspective, providing glimpses of meditative spirituality perhaps reminiscent of Louise Glück, including the ambivalent attitudes toward grief, death, nature—“Above me, birds swirl, trying to mimic / the weightlessness of the clouds, / though I give them no notice,”—as well as toward other family members: “The darkness is kinder than her sister / Always eager / to engulf everything, never asking / for anything we cannot give.”
From the texture of the “slimy seeds of tomato against threads of dry turkey” to “the scent / of . . . moldering / orange peels” to “the whir of the range hood” to the sight of “streetlights . . . about to lose /power,” Babb builds a multidimensional sensorial landscape of the urban pastoral, where grainy and gloomy objects appear as if from an immersive virtual reality. This is not to say that the imagery is docile or silent. Quite the opposite—these symbolic, emotion-laden images often speak for the otherwise laconic poet: “Plastic bottles click, and a gust of wind / launches dust into our eyes. / We blink the grit away and cry,” if not speaking for themselves: “The trees loom like fat nurses, / towering over their charges. / Heavy arms sprinkling pollen, / over the path.”
The “List” consists of fifty short poems, each no more than a page. Babb’s poetry is succinct. Her stanzas break quickly, with the rests in time and the economy in space bringing a musicality to many of the poems, which flow so easily that they might even seem simple at times. But a closer examination of their visual and musical cadences reveals that they are far from easy to emulate.
The empty space in “Night Turn,” for example, recreates a sense of time passing between the fragments of varying sensations from a flickering, episodic past:
From the grey
and the quiet
that turns a whisper
to nothingness again
Here, the poem suggests that what remains of our memories is not fact but feeling, equivocal clues toward the reconstruction of meaning. The white spaces and alignments, whose physicality per se possesses meanings, are carefully designed with the spatial awareness of a painter standing in front of a canvas.
An embodiment of Paul Valery’s tenet that poetry is “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense,” Babb’s deft use of enjambments can create, in “The impossibility of imagining spring” for instance, a subtle double meaning that multiplies the poem’s layers:
Afraid, so afraid . . .
of facing the worst
that the world has to offer
to us. Barren.
Is bringing a child to the world the worst thing a disenchanted speaker must face, or is it because we are so afraid of facing the worst (perhaps death) that the world has to offer to us a child, which does not qualify as a solution to, but merely a distraction from, our existential angst? To each her own interpretation.
Much of the book finds Babb navigating through loss and love, time and impermanence, and the familiar yet strange mundane life—sometimes with a nostalgic resignation—“We can’t control everything / least of all the ground that falls away beneath our feet,”—other times with the unyielding stubbornness of a warrior: “When the wind blows, / my edges do not soften, / I die.”
Reading the book is partaking in a picturesque journey through the fleeting, the mundane, and the simultaneously bleak and beautiful—the journey of a tender, receptive poet with her arms open, welcoming, but not anxiously expecting, her soliloquy to be overheard by a kindred spirit, a poet much similar to the speaker in “The Forest in the Lake” who is “Free / to revel in / aloneness, / to race after / danger, // and then / to find someone / to share this mirror / to another world.”
At once vulnerable and visceral, A List of Things I’ve Lost is a promising first collection, one of undoubtedly many more to come, and one that is strong like the speaker in “On the Upper Rhine 1820”:
There is little to do
but push forward,
to find comfort in the distance
we put between us
and the past.
but water and stone
and night sky.
About the Reviewer
Chang Wen is a poet and essayist from China. Her poetry has appeared in With Painted Words, Armarolla, Beyond Queer Words, and more. She earned her MFA in both poetry and nonfiction writing from The New School.