“Remembering Poughkeepsie” is Elizabeth Spires’s sharp-edged elegy for her mentor, William Gifford, a literature professor at Vassar who helped Spires start out on her four-decade-long career as a poet. Spires describes a cold walk that she and Gifford took long ago by the Hudson River, which flows past the college town. The Hudson quickly becomes multivalent. It is the river of time, Heraclitus’s flux, and the Styx. It also represents the distance between two people at different stages of life. When the teacher stops on the bridge crossing the river, “Ready to call it a day,” and the student continues (“Nothing would stop me”), that’s the way it must be.

The poem’s fragmentary sentences are stabbing and staccato, anything but flowing. They push back against the current. Writing “downriver” where time has carried her, Spires finds herself turning words over and over, like river stones. They are somehow more and less than she needs to reach her teacher. She knows she will meet him again, but only beyond time, without words, on the other side of the river.

The teacher is only a memory now. “But to exist in memory is to exist somewhere,” she writes. What is it like to exist in that mysterious somewhere?  “A Tomb, Half-lit” explores the idea. The title, which reads like a stage direction in a play script, evokes a space similar to Juliet’s tomb. Only it is a mother who lies on the marble slab, and her daughter, not her lover, who enters. The daughter remembers a walk with her mother, “arm in arm,” when nothing was said or needed to be. But she needs her mother to speak now, needs to know that her mother has forgiven her (for what, she doesn’t tell us). The daughter wonders: “What does a soul do for all eternity?”

Lyric poems let the living speak to the dead. The fancy is that the dead can hear us and are capable of replying. But do we really want to hear what they have to say? In the italicized final quatrain of “A Tomb, Half-lit,” the shift in typeface signals not only that the mother is now speaking but also that she is speaking from a different dimension of time and space. It is unclear whether she has heard her daughter and is replying to her, or whether she is merely talking to herself when she asks that unanswerable, terrifying question: “How long will I be dead? 

Love, the Song of Solomon says, is as strong as death. Spires’s “Love Presumes” takes up the theme in rhyming dimeter quatrains that are part children’s riddle, part Baroque devotional meditation. Again, Spires is imagining the end of life and what it will be like to arrive there. Perhaps we will find “the face of Love / come back to love.” If so, it will mean returning in death to the presumptions, turmoil, and failures that loving brings in life.

Spires, a professor of English at Goucher College, speaks in the role of the teacher in “The Rehearsal.” The issue here is not the longing for reunion but the discipline of letting go. It’s what the teacher teaches by releasing her students from her teaching, so that they can become themselves. The lesson requires an acceptance of human separateness and the endlessness of endings. The last day of class is just one of “many last days.” From that perspective, the afterlife Spires is writing about in these poems is the life we are already living.

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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