And so we begin with a title that promises an end or, maybe, an end to the end: Dropping Death. Will this book death-drop Death? Or will it release Death to the public like an album? Will this book “drop” Death’s secrets on you? Or will it take Donne’s “Death, thou shalt die” to the next level and simply drop the subject, leaving Death in the dust?
Dropping Death, coauthored by two experienced poets with distinct poetic styles, challenges our conventional notions of authorship not only through collaboration—common enough—but also by foregrounding friendship as the impulse for making poems. This collaboration between Duane Esposito and Ralph Nazareth is neither a mash-up nor a synthesis; the point is not to bend one’s poetics to another poet’s will, but rather to bring them into orbit around one another. As I read Dropping Death, I am reminded of what Nishitani Keiji says in “The I-Thou Relation in Zen Buddhism”: “Two factors need to be kept firmly in mind. First, the I and the Thou are absolutes, each in its own respective subjectivity. And second, both I and Thou are, because of their relationship to one another, at the same time absolutely relative.” Esposito and Nazareth acknowledge each other by being present to themselves, and then interrogating what that self is or means. Analogous to Nishitani’s idea of the I-Thou relationship, they put their poems into a dialogic dance that is at once dichotomous and singular, relative and subjective, a two-in-one and a one-in-two. One, two. One, two. Dip. And don’t drop.
Their approach to collaboration in this volume casts the mechanisms of the lyric into relief. At least since John Stuart Mill declared that “the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. . . . [a] feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude,” the lyric “I” is generally understood to be unaware of its reader, and so it reifies an isolated, solipsistic speaker. But even in the most intense moments of solitude and introspection, the poems in Dropping Death are acutely aware of someone else. The very privacy of these poems is charged with a sense of another’s presence. In the midst of the first poetic salvo, a long sequence stretched over short, taut lines, Esposito will:
head inside to things
lie beside it all—
rub my kids’ bellies—
tell them the story
The self is next to and, in some way, also lying—another kind of displacement that gets at truth by telling stories, writing poems, putting something else—someone else—at the center, until the self is finally distilled down to this:
hear what silence means—
A dialectical relationship to the self appears above the silence. It is the autonomy of the self, known by its orientation toward (“I love”) and definition by (“& I”) another person, that becomes receptive to language’s ultimate oxymoron: the sound of silence.
Yet, while Esposito’s poems limn the “I” in the silences that grow around his spare lines, Nazareth openly interrogates lyric subjectivity with a prose line and a Poundian sense of the personae:
She could not tell you exactly when she switched from the third to the first person. And when she finally did, she could not give you a convincing reason why she did it. Writing in the third had served her well. She was free to make up stories about others or retell the stories she’d heard about them.
Here, again, we find made-up stories that somehow defy or, at least, dislocate the first person. As they proliferate, however, the personae take on lives of their own, attaching themselves to some sense of innate selfhood:
It occurred to her that it was quite likely that under the pretext of the third person she was using masks and personae to reveal aspects of her own experience and psyche. She was pretending to be open but was actually in hiding.
The sense of an essential self may be harder to shuck off than it first appears. After all, the mask implies a face just as the personae tend to constellate around some aura of authentic identity. And yet, it is not egotism that drives the self into “hiding” as much as it is a desire to put the self in proper relation to everything and everyone else:
And every time he entertained or suffered the thought of his own unrepeatable life, he felt a part of his soul collapse. A sense of waste washed over him. His mood turned wistful. There was no hint of self-centered arrogance here, just sadness at the brute fact of the sheer uniqueness of everything and its utter irreplaceability.
The self that emerges amid these poems shares Hannah Arendt’s sense of “natality,” the uniqueness of each individual and the infinite possibilities for each unrepeatable action. What we have in common is our difference. A paradox, for sure, that is profoundly embodied by the poems in this book. A two-in-one and a one-in-two.
When these poems do move toward isolation, they resolve not in a navel-gazing epiphany, but rather in an opening up to “nature,” burning the ego away like a morning haze to expose the self to the world. As such, there is an underlying ecopoetics here in line with what Gary Snyder concludes in his preface to No Nature: “There is no single or set ‘nature’ either as ‘the natural world’ or ‘the nature of things.’ The greatest respect we can pay to nature is not to trap it, but to acknowledge that it eludes us and that our own nature is also fluid, open, and conditional.” This book, by its very “nature,” is fluid, open, and conditional:
Then I know nature
will fade from me,
so I wake up.
Don’t you see? Nothing
but nature survives.
Esposito intimates that the permanence of nature is ever-evolving, holding space for our dissolution. The concept of “nature” in Dropping Death remains in a chiasmatic relationship with the self:
Ah great love, one that moves past the preening peacocks in the neighboring field and bounds, if such a thing is possible for the soul of being, over the stone walls layered with lichen and moss, onto the meadow, the valley, the slowly rising ridge of hills, and beyond, to the thin edge of sea where the horizon loses itself as our love does in its own deep mirroring.
Nature may, in the end, elude, but it also reflects and activates, making possible the capacity to feel and experience:
Maybe he didn’t have inner feelings. Maybe it came from being close to the earth. Maybe this is what she needed to do, get her hands dirty, touch and lift and hold and dig. Feel things.
It is nature that locates feeling outside of oneself and forces the “inner” to be formed by its relation to the “outer,” rather than becoming trapped in an internal tautology.
In the end, Dropping Death must begin where all poems in fact begin, with a dream collapse:
In the dream
I’m a boy
a diving board—
with work boots on—
heart on a
Getting high while sinking like a stone is a dream within the dream, which is a crisis of belief as well as a yearning for the real:
my body gives
way to death.
The possibility that the truth of one’s experience could be put into words and manifest a reality before death seems to depend on dream’s imaginative dislocation of the self from consciousness. And what might be the source of that dream?
All in all, my love, it is an emergence out of the portal of death into spring in the reddening orchard.
“The reddening orchard” at once evokes Stevens’s liberatory image of the sailor’s drunken dream of “tigers / in red weather” and the intense beauty in autumn’s death throes. The image apposes the paradoxical way in which the imagination makes things more real with the way in which death, just as paradoxically, makes things more real. The orchard, too, is just as complexly evocative as a natural site made of cultivated ground, a figure for poetry’s Janus-like quality.
Even more than their stalwart investigations of self and other, of death and the human relationship to nature, these two poets both search for poetry’s moral center. They recognize their kinship in their searching, although the poetic forms and structures of thought are their own. This abiding, this space for difference within one’s own poetic and ethical practice, is, if not all, then a significant part of what the book is about. There is an implicit and deep reverence for the other poet’s longstanding engagement in poetics and the practice of making of poems. There is a trust and a willingness to let one’s poems be informed inside the book by another’s art. Books of poems by a single author are certainly in conversation with other poets, but Esposito and Nazareth make this context manifest within the book, which changes everything. In doing so, they make a direct challenge to the egotism implicit in the way that relationships between the author and other writers usually get structured, where the individual’s poetic practice takes precedence over all others, reducing the rest to allusions and acknowledgments. The poetry in Dropping Death can never be just a means of personal expression. It is always something more: it is an ethical action where another’s independent practice (and, thus, being), even while remaining discrete, becomes indistinguishable from one’s own.
About the Reviewer
Tim Wood is the author of two books of poems, Otherwise Known as Home (BlazeVOX, 2010) and Notched Sunsets (Atelos, 2016). He is also co-editor of The Hip Hop Reader (Longman, 2008). In 2017, he won the Elizabeth Curry Poetry Contest and was first runner-up for RHINO magazine’s Founder’s Award. He also contributed to Black Lives Have Always Mattered, A Collection of Essays, Poems, and Personal Narratives, edited by Abiodun Oyewole, one of the original Last Poets. He is currently a professor of English at SUNY Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York.