Living with our lives: Ann Lees's poetry lets us look inward
Martha's Vineyard Times File Photo
"Night Spirit" by Ann Mirabile Lees, Antrim House, Conn. 28 pg., $12.
The business of reviewing poetry can be chancy work and I generally avoid it.
Unlike fiction, which requires the reader to suspend disbelief, or non-fiction — either you produced the goods or you didn't — poetry is ephemeral, the result of one person's interior journey, written down for the rest of us to appreciate according to our individual lights. In that context, who am I to tell you that a poem is good or bad?
In the case of 30-year Island resident Ann Mirabile Lees's latest volume, "Night Spirit," I can tell you that she speaks a language I understand. I felt comforted in my own fears, strengthened in my beliefs, and included in her world.
We come to poetry in the hopes of seeing universal truth and feelings delivered in a dialect that we speak. Perhaps because reading poetry requires more of us, more thoughtful reading than we are willing to risk, we rarely see verse on the Bestseller lists. That may help to explain why most poets are poor.
Good writing, I think, allows readers to be voyeurs, to look into the very personal self-window created by the writer. Ms. Lees has done that in a straightforward way with a grouping of work under two themes: Chimney Smoke and Survivor.
Ms. Lees's bio suggests right brain and left brain gifts in equal parts. She is a graduate of Harvard Medical School, has done clinical research at MIT and at the nonprofit Boston Heart Foundation created by her husband, Robert. Her breakthrough work includes identifying atherin, a protein found in human artery walls.
That work is a very big deal in the study of atherosclerosis. For those of us dwelling in the clogged-artery demographic, it's a very big deal indeed. She is also a poet and has studied with Bridget Meeds, whose made a practice of helping medical professionals to find their poetic voices.
What we have in "Night Spirit" is a doctor who understands the X's and O's, the mechanics of human frailty, and a woman of a certain age who notes her own fears and occasionally mourns the passage of time. "Night Spirit" also denotes her as a person full of awe, capable of taking strength and comfort from the natural world.
Three poems drawn from Island venues, "Fulling Mill Brook," "Squibnocket Beach," and "Menemsha Creek," are delightful takes on the natural world's therapeutic ability to sustain our spirit.
Ms. Lees's work exhibits her ability to stand aside from her emotional self and to examine herself with a clinical eye. The result is often an exquisite articulation of feelings we all have but can't quite put our fingers on. A powerful example for me is "From a Brooklyn Subway Train," in which the rider can just glimpse the Statue of Liberty in the distance against a foreground of despairing neighborhoods.
The scene took me instantly to countless train rides from pastoral Connecticut to "The City," hurtling as quick as we could past torn tenements and their residents, some just 40 feet away from my window. As I read her poem, I remembered the shame and fury I felt and that I did nothing at the time to ease the suffering.
Then, there is a sweet, brief conversation, "Brain Storm," between elderly Alzheimer's patients that made me smile a little sad, but helped me to understand that we desire our dignity, that we can keep on despite infirmity.
Ms. Lees's work in this volume provides snippets of insight, written photographs of those of us with lives still to live but at the point where self-assessment is important and valuable.