A Kind of Blessing

by Donald Platt
Grid Books / Off the Grid Press 2022   $17.00

by Robert Dunsdon

Halfway into this collection, a picture drifted off the page and insinuated itself into my consciousness, settling there slyly and emerging unbidden over later days. It is of fallen crocuses after a cold snap, lying on the ground like: 

            …purple and gold noisemakers thrown on the dance floor
                                      and trampled
            by Mardi Gras partygoers doing the stomp…

These lines, an aside almost, epitomize for me the author’s knack of bringing a scene, a memory, an idea to life; in this case transforming a few deflated flowers into an event. It’s the kind of image, being both wholly original and instantly relatable, that you come to expect from Donald Platt’s work, and is abundantly present in Swansdown.  

Other plants, such as lavender, “whose faint scent is an emblem of summer’s heaven still to come,” populate these pages as they did in his last collection, One Illuminated Letter of Being. There, flowers, shrubs and trees were used subtly, but most effectively in defining and understanding the cycle of life and death; to come to terms with losing his mother, learning all the while about himself, about the balm of memory and the sting of regret.

The subject of loss is again tackled here with compassion and a kind of philosophical acceptance, albeit bruised by sorrow and a feeling of helplessness. The first section tells of his brother Michael, to whom the collection is dedicated. Michael has Down Syndrome and is dying painfully of peptic ulcers, his white skin “against white pillow. His few / strands of stray hair fine / as milkweed silk.” and who cannot survive an operation. As Platt tells us:

             …I’ve had to put him under hospice care. He is an earthly idea
                                         whose time has come.
             He sits in the white armchair. I in a rocker. We look out

                                          the wide bay window 
              at an evergreen and a maple whose leaves are turning to yellow-orange

After his inevitable death, we are given a description of the cremation process, whose fiercely graphic details seem to echo the poet’s anger and grief at losing his dear, innocent brother. The brother who used to don a crash-helmet to ride a white donkey called Billy Boy, and whose mind was “a loom on which the world / unraveled”; the brother with a similarly child-like friend who, when told that the body laid out on the bed had gone to heaven, replied: “well, then, who is this?” These are shockingly good poems. Platt somehow manages to pull from the murk the more distressing elements of existence, and in exposing them to the light of day, confer on them a kind of blessing. 

In stark contrast, we are invited to share in an utterly charming poem in which a couple’s love is compared to a coconut palm standing tall and defiant, inviolable in the dirt and gravel of a construction site. “Existing Tree” (from the Spanish Arbol Existente, No Molestar, on a sign designed to protect it) is a love poem which dares to confront some uncomfortable truths about the physical deterioration evident to each in a relationship of thirty years or more, while at the same time expressing the tenderness and depth of their feeling. Confront is perhaps the wrong word: he positively celebrates her hip-replacement scar “like a six-inch zipper” and an arthritic finger “twisted as a geranium’s knobby stem.” Platt clearly adores everything about his partner—bad moods and cracked toenail polish included—and asserts proudly that “Though our two bodies fall apart, / love will not.”  

Throwing into the mix such details as uprooted sea grapes and growling bulldozers in that poem is typical of the poet’s variousness; his use of color, of the seemingly incongruous which, along with some rather surprising references, enhances or gives light to any given subject in this nicely observed and fertile collection.

These qualities are used to good effect in what is essentially a guided tour of the cemetery of Père-Lachaise in Paris. Resting at the grave of Oscar Wilde, where the granite stone is adorned with graffiti and pink lipstick kisses, the poet considers the occupants of this vast necropolis. He has walked all afternoon trying to find those men and women he has loved, including Ernst and Apollinaire, Piaf and Jim Morrison, Bizet, and after a long search, Modigliani. The painter’s sarcophagus, strewn with silk flowers, also contains his lover Jeanne, who threw herself and their unborn child from a five-story window after his funeral. It’s full of such extraordinary detail, and so absorbing that at the end, you almost feel you are exiting with him through the Door of Almond Trees along with the lovers and a few homeless people pushing their belongings in a wire cart. 

Similarly, Platt’s generous use of detail serves to intensify the emotional pull of an unconventional, but revealing, account of having to deal with his own health problems, and worries about work, while his wife Dana is coping with the pain of rheumatoid arthritis and the deleterious effects of its treatment. Interestingly, and it’s a device I’ve not come across before, the poem is spliced with another narrative, that of entries from the diary of Pepys about the Great Fire devastating London. It’s a conceit that works well both as an analogy, and as a sort of companion piece. 

A nicely atmospheric piece, from which the collection’s title is taken, sees the poet in Ireland, sitting on a bench with a bag of ice on his swollen knee, people watching. Wonderfully inventive, with references to a little study of clouds by Constable and, more surprisingly perhaps, Renoir’s “Les Parapluies”, it’s a quietly potent consideration of life passing, and concludes with the sight of clouds breaking over Dublin, only to be washed away:

             … to a blue nothing. Each of us – lovers, mothers, runners, me – no more
                                        than windblown swansdown  

It’s a sentiment that seems to sum up the mood of this thoughtful, but ever fascinating little book. A book for grown-ups, you might say, for those who have accepted the knocks and the compromises, but who nevertheless have retained a keen awareness of, and appreciation for, all that surrounds them.  

Pleasingly presented on the page, for the most part in Donald Platt’s trade-mark unrhymed tercets, a good number of the poems are undeniably melancholic; but it’s a melancholy that manages to be both greatly affecting and in some way comforting. His versatility, his mastery of detail and above all his wisdom allow an understanding that within the bigger picture, the trials and misfortunes are as necessary for our development as the colorful and crowded world that propels us.  

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap