Last week I was walking through the UC Berkeley campus with a friend who is a birth/care worker. We were on our way to hear Bernadette Mayer read — “our grand-auntie,” we said. We were talking about aspirations, the work my friend aspires to most, and my friend was speaking about helping women decide when and how they want to give birth. She was telling me about all sorts of care methods that I, at thirty years old, knew nothing about.
To understand a poet’s work it is necessary to understand a poet’s life; this is particularly the case with poet George Oppen, whose work, in Michael Heller’s estimation, frequently demonstrates “an urge toward psychic depths” and “take[s] account of contingency, of the life that impinges on us, whether it involves meeting other poets, car wrecks” — referring to Oppen’s poem “Route” (1968) — “or the wrecks of the self and world.”
The title of Morning Ritual superimposes the divine and the mundane: one thinks simultaneously of a prayer to greet the sunrise and of brushing one’s teeth. In this book, however, Rogal is firmly rooted in the quotidian: it’s toothbrushing that she’s interested in, and she resists the urge to give daily “rituals” like this more than their usual significance. What she shows us by doing so is that their usual significance, though minor, is nonetheless an essential part of the tapestry of our experience and worth exploring.
“It’s / true enough that we’ve fallen between / two generations — one drunk, the other / stoned,” Keith Waldrop writes in an early poem addressed to his wife, poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop. It’s easy to imagine that Waldrop, born in 1932, is thinking of the “liquor and analysis” (43) that marked the lives of some of his lionized predecessors, such as Berryman and Lowell, and of the intoxicating, telling wit that can mark their work.
We don’t choose the world we are born into. Or the nation. As valuable as theories of the social contract may be — the idea that we chose to relinquish the freedom of unfettered existence for the security of a lawful society — the fact remains that no one in our world has ever actually confronted that choice. It’s not a contract we can annul.