Diane Ackerman is known largely as a naturalist and essayist with her most successful work being a nonfiction book titled A History of the Senses. Ackerman’s poetry is less known and her volume I Praise My Destroyer gives a glimpse of possible reasons for this.
First, the book deals largely with old poetic content and has nothing new to say about any of them. Ackerman bounces among subjects like death, relationships, nature, and other poets, with the occasional historical poem thrown in. Nothing new here.
Old subjects can be approached in new ways and Ackerman attempts to do this with clever wording and a reliance on simile as a poetic technique. There are 78 distinct similes throughout the book and less than five use a conjunction other than “like.” One example from the title poem is “cabbage whites flutter/like tissue paper prayers.” This image works and as this poem attempts to reconcile fear of death with the beauty of life, it works well.
However, another simile in the same poem reads “in the hearth where logs are piled/like hunks of mutten.” This doesn’t come close to matching the depth of the other, nor does it seem to serve any purpose toward understanding the content of the poem. Simile appears as a forced habit here and throughout the book with some working well and others falling as flat as hunks of mutten piled in a fireplace.
It’s worth noting that on the rare occasions Ackerman steps away from her reliance on simile, the imagery changes substantially and her potential as a poet is much more clear: “fire was an animal/whose gold flames scorched/and whose galloping/devoured grasslands as it fled.”
Set within a historical poem with larger social significance, this image not only works, but persuades the reader to want more.
Unfortunately, Ackerman reverts again to clichéd subjects with clichéd statements and forced rhyme as in We Die: “Yet it didn’t save you, love or dough/Even when it happens slow, it happens fast/and then there’s no tomorrow.” Compounding the frustration is the elegant and rhythmic (although also clichéd) closing of the same poem, “the horror lesson I saw out of the corner of my eye/but refused to believe until now: we die.” The real horror lesson here is that one faulty stanza ruins the poem in its entirety.
Ackerman writes largely in the confessional tone, yet these poems (often about therapy sessions) show the potential for a cleverness that would be put to better use on less time-trodden subjects. “As you flay and betray me, I secretly hope/that time wounds all heels” is an example of the wordplay this poet is capable of and uses all too rarely. The allusion to Achilles here also works well in the context of a poem about victims and heroes.
It isn’t until the sixth segment of the book that Ackerman attempts to acknowledge the world outside of her own experience. She accomplishes this goal writing in third person and with careful attention to details as with “lived like cattle and kings, and still do–/the poor in steerage, the rich high above.” At last the poet removes herself from middle class society and admits there is more to life than dying and talking.
Her greatest achievement in this volume is a poem about the experience of a new immigrant to the United States “whose people dream/the American Dream/to belong everywhere to everyone/but settle for a neighborhood.”
In time perhaps Ackerman’s work will transcend the overused topics of death and friendship, and put her ability for clever wordplay to good use. May the simile rest in peace in the process.
Originality: 2 Craft: 2 Accessibility: 3 Significance Factor: 2 Inspiration Factor: 1