Catastrophe and Compassion
The writing of poetry hasn't changed fundamentally since 9/11, but that event has been present, explicitly or implicitly, in countless books published in its aftermath. In A Deed to the Light, Jeanne Murray Walker lets the events of the terrorist attacks, and the sniper attacks near Washington a year later, play upon her consciousness. It isn't that she keeps bringing the subject up—only two poems make reference to the twin towers—but the word catastrophe has become conspicuous in her vocabulary. What she's done particularly well in this collection is shine light upon our responses to such collective traumas.
The obvious 9/11 poem is "After Terrorism," where she says, "Maybe the John Deere of history / has to drag catastrophe into our library with an 18-gauge chain / before we finally stand up and say, Well, what have we got here?" She chooses to not emphasize the evil or the anger but, as the poem's title suggests, to move beyond. "Listen," she implores. "Outside this frame I can see light, / heavy as pardon, reliable as granite. / Help me. Help me drag it into the picture."
The poem "Sniper" is surprising in that Walker imagines not the sniper himself but a devoted wife who "is beginning to suspect her husband." Here is where she confronts our responses: "America wants him / dead. We tend bonfires of hatred. We are lit from / the inside with hatred. Hatred binds us together. I close / my eyes and try to hold him steady enough to hate him, // but it's her face I see." This imagined woman makes the monster-sniper a real man: "She will never forget the good in him."
Other sorrows that make their way into the poems are less public. Walker writes of "The Nurses" on the children's cancer ward who share laughter on their breaks, ...