Promises to Keep: A Review of Debra Kaufman’s The Next Moment
The Next Moment, Poems by Debra Kaufman
Jacar Press, 2010, 64 pages, $13.95
What keeps us alive, motivates us, makes us human are our relationships and the obligations they entail. Frost knew that and memorably expressed it in his lines:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
but I have promises to keep,
and miles to go before I sleep,
and miles to go before I sleep.
Now, in The Next Moment, Debra Kaufman reminds us of the vitality of those relationships as well as the sometimes overwhelming difficulty of them.
Ranging across relationships with grandparents (“Knitting”), parents (“Smile”), spouses (“Nice”), and children (“The Drought Speaks”), Kaufman creates a detailed and honest “atlas of the difficult world” (thank you, Adrienne Rich) that defines who we are, who we have always been, as human beings. And Kaufman goes on to remind us in other poems that when, through such things as death, maturation, and divorce, those relationships seem to fade from prominence, the ever-present relationship with ourselves remains (“Epiphany”), and those other relationships always inherently linger there (“Last Words”), a fact made clearest in these lines from “Hope and Despair Are Not Opposites”:
The body experiences one moment,
then the next,
is always in the present,
while the mind spins into the future
or loops back to the past.
This duality of human existence is treated again both stylistically and thematically in the collection’s two best poems: “Minestrone, Rainy Day” and “Too Late / The Scream.” These two “braided” poems combine two poems each in a perfect marriage of form and function. In the former, one string of words illustrates how meticulous attention to detail and routine is used to assuage and even combat the fear, guilt, and uncertainty, the “unraveling” effects, caused by the depression, abandonment, and drug abuse presented in the contrapuntal other string of words. Similarly, in the latter poem, participation in art and writing is used to balance and resist the terror, the undoing, created by the unthinkable awareness of our children’s mortality and vulnerability.
It is certainly common enough that a book of poems contains one or two brilliant pieces. In The Next Moment, such brilliance is the rule rather than the exception, and it manifests not only in the form of the poems but also in frequently resonant phrasing. One line, for example, in “After a Drink or Two You’re Beautiful” memorably summarizes a child’s experience of living with an alcoholic mother: “Such heaviness, so many empties.” Another example of Kaufman’s facility for phrasing comes from “Last Words,” where the last stanza rivals the power of Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”:
I wish he’d die, now, quickly.
But first would lay
his rough hands
on the crown of my head.
The theme of a father’s loss treated in this poem is addressed with equal poignancy in “Comes a Time”:
In a black-and-white snapshot
proof that he once held me aloft:
my infant fist clutching his finger,
worry and wonder in his gaze,
the world opening–
our world of earth and air,
touch and smell,
grasp and release.
If it is true that we can judge a person by the company they keep, then certainly judging a poet by whose work they call to mind is a fair means of assessment. Frost, Adrienne Rich, Dylan Thomas . . . poetically speaking, Debra Kaufman is indeed a fine host for an outstanding selection of guests as her work takes its place at the table remarkable and memorable poets.