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And if he did say
You do it, then that was the moment
I first tried lifting my father’s
burden, taking on his work, climbing
down steep wooden steps
to feed the thing that was always there
in the dark with its mouth open.Or here’s the end of “Kitchen Scene,” in which an older child glimpses her mother on the kitchen floor: …as if alone, lit, onstage, she howls I hate my life, I hate my life! Her sobs ululate in time to her violent scrubbing. But it’s no opera. Her voice my embryo despair, I’m sobbing, too— Mama, Mama, please—what did I do? This ambivalence, so real, intricate, and unafraid, extends beyond family dynamics. Larkin explores identity in “Jew in Paris”, in which her Jewishness is both obvious— “My aunt’s looking through me into/this case of circumcision knives” — and complicated — “I’m still the offending speck of chometz/they find by candlelight and flick/from the spines of prayerbooks . . .” Equally complicated is sex and love, as in “The Combination”: Face on face, lip pressed against lip, hands blunt on breasts, minds gone numb, we work the combination…. The bed groans. Dot rolls away half smiling. Well, she says. We got that over with. Larkin’s earlier poems are also unflinching, but they tend to be more centered in the present. Where they do hark back, they switch within the poem to the present as if to show us immediately how that past has affected the speaker. Consider the beginning of “Secret Song”: How can I tell you I’ve been stealing. Stole from you. Hid memories in my skin of what we did, we do. And there are more love poems among the earlier poems, more about the obsession and bittersweetness of passion: Aetna, Vesuvius… Monadnock— something volcanic and Latin crashes against my Massachusetts rock or the opposite my lust pilgrim to your stone Roman-emperor heart moated by oceans But, as that snippet shows, there’s also more abstraction. It’s as if, as the decades have passed, Larkin’s camera points more at ground level than the sky. Poetry is often discussed in terms of accessibility. Throughout her career, Larkin’s poems have had a lovely balance on this front. They communicate on a first look, but one’s understanding deepens with each subsequent reading. And there is so much else to appreciate—the poems’ careful crafting, skillful line breaks, consistent truths, pleasing music — along the way. “Your beloved has folded your house into his,” she writes. “I’m wading the swift river, balancing on stones.” Gretchen Primack is the author of Kind (Post-Traumatic Press, for sale at our Pushcart) and Doris’ Red Faces (Mayapple Press). A dedicated animal rights advocate, she is co-author of The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals, with Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary co-founder Jenny Brown (Penguin Avery). Primack is the coordinator of Jewish Currents’ Alexander and Dora Raynes Poetry Competition and has also worked as a union organizer and prison educator.