By Clive Matson
Wonderment and curiosity fuel the poems in Greed: A Confession. “Things can’t be what they seem,” puzzles Didi Goodman when, after a windstorm, an unusual golden light fills her driveway. She discovers the hue comes from yellow leaves blown to the ground, their color enhanced by a moon that’s no longer blocked by the leaves.
Nature supplies a kaleidoscope of topics: a frog that freezes in winter and thaws for spring; a bird concealed in a variety of shapes but, without awareness, the eye discerns where it is; the confusion of lights at dusk, which is star, which porch light, and which the jeep on a mountain track; a raptor’s boundless world where a morsel of flesh is pin-pointed, “one unlucky pigeon on a wire.” Add a cricket, bones, swallows, hummingbirds, dusk, a burr, a burned-out house, and many more, even paintings of landscapes.
At the core of these poems are natural ironies, or disjunctures, or improbabilities that inspire awe, bafflement, and even disbelief. The poems are frames through which we view this magic. Goodman creates clear windows, often tinged with humor, especially when an event runs counter to intuition. The title poem traces the poet’s curiosity to childhood delight in toads, in berries, and in coins on a laundromat floor. She calls her impulse “greed,” which shows how completely the draw toward wonderment dominates and propels her poetic life. That draw, however, is healthy, enriching, vibrant, and brings to light intricacies of the world.
The poet first needs the acuity to notice an event. Curiosity compels her to observe it over time, and this gives the magic a chance to reveal its machinery. With that the poet’s initial goal is achieved. Such immersion elicits an insight, though, often placed at the poem’s end, on some parallel in history, or in human experience, or in mythology. Swallows are “like skiffs on the sea”; hope changes “as easily as water, once, to wine”; we could be salamanders that “ sprout such tiny, useless hands”; we are like cattle facing “wide-spaced slats of change, unable to risk a step.”
Goodman uses a variety of forms, most often the sonnet, and that’s testament to this form’s flexible power. Rhymes and half-rhymes are embedded in her sentences and not often rung, but when it serves to ring them, she will. The tone is generally cool, reflecting her intent to be accurate and to reveal an event, not to exclaim over it. A personal passion ripples through the pieces on Jerusalem, implying longer stories one hopes Goodman will explore. But throughout most of Greed: A Confession the poet’s interest is in discrete happenings. This stipulates that her language be tailored to each topic, and communicate clearly. That she does so in an accessible, conversational style, while fulfilling her forms’ often intricate requirements, is remarkable.
Goodman chooses subjects from our lives, too. She treats vision, aging, memory, desire, and illusion with interest equal to what she gives fauna and flora. Her metaphors, reversing the usual order, then come from the physical world. The heart finds a simile in the Luna moth, “poised for flight, perched on the edge”; the poet’s love varies as much as the “Shostakovich Preludes Opus 34”; a birthday takes on the urgency and “whistled lunacy” of a robin’s song; minute ancestral forces reappear in the present, opening “a sudden canyon at your feet.”
Didi Goodman is a scientist of natural history, which, in these poems, includes human experience. The poet shows us how to see in ways that are revelatory. The pleasure she takes in this process displays itself, with characteristic irony, in “A Certain Joy,” where her persona meets death and comments, “How the sun glints on the beautiful curve of your blade.”
(With help from Sally Bolger and Jack Litewka)