May 3 2023
Poetry review – ALL IN MEASURE: Charles Rammelkamp welcomes Heather Saunders Estes’ wise and encouraging poems about lockdown
Subtitled A Book of Hours 2020-2022, All in Measure is structured like the Medieval Christian devotional prayer book based around the canonical hours. The overall tone is necessarily contemplative and, like its template, the collection is divided into sections corresponding to the arc of a day, starting with Dawn and concluding with Dark (Dawn, Morning, Noon, Afternoon, Dusk, Evening and “Unspoken Midnight — Dark”). While the sequence of poems spans the several years of pandemic lockdown, itself so often a time of isolation and introspection, Heather Saunders Estes’ predominant attitude is gratitude, likewise a devotional posture and such a comfort to read while reflecting on the recent quarantine. The poems largely take place in San Francisco, where the poet was self-isolated with her husband, her daughter, and her daughter’s friend; but a few of them are situated in Wyoming and Washington state.
Just as the middot in Mussar, Jewish ethical teachings, include gratitude, patience and kindness, and the same is true of the Buddhist paramitas, so Estes’s perspective includes these “soul traits” as manifestations of her faith. Time and again she extols these characteristics. In the second poem, “Supplication,” itself a religious posture, she writes, “I seem to pray in appreciation, gratitude, love,’ and later goes on:
My poems are offerings of thanks, not requests. I pray it will stay that way.
The poem “Joy Fishing—” from the “Evening” section, expresses this gratitude for the things we often simply take for granted. It reads:
The opposite of doom-scrolling. Thank you, Universe, for passionfruit milkshakes delivered to this house tonight when they were needed so badly.
“Mont-Saint-Michel — 2022” concludes with an expression of gratitude for essential workers. “I Am a Big Woman Shopping for Bras” is an amusing poem about breasts and the undergarments that support them, which she concludes, addressing her breasts, “I want to say thank you.”
This approach is everywhere in the collection, even as the poet chronicles the forced solitude, the “cabin fever” we all felt. In “Self-Quarantine—February 2020,” she observes that their living space “has become a walled-off cave, an anchorite cell / an air-raid shelter, Rapunzel’s tower.” There’s so much time to reflect, and to observe.
One of the things Estes observes from her San Francisco home high on a hill is the wildlife all around her – birds, dogs, rats, bumble bees, spiders. “There have been mountain lion sightings / in the city since the pandemic quiet,” she writes in “Fox News, 2020.” And there are other meditations on birds in “Air Under Our Wings,” “Enough,” “Hawk Shadow,” “Red-Tailed-Hawk,” “The Days of Crows” “Glen Canyon Park,” and “Did the Scrub Jay Notice?”. Dogs are celebrated in “The Guardian,” “Duty Calls,” and “Grandmother”.
The flora and the fauna likewise foster an attitude of hope. “Hope is a Winged Thing” is a poem that alludes to Emily Dickinson and it extols the beauty and optimism implicit in the most humble insects – ladybugs, mosquitos, spiders, wasps.
Fluttering the downtown high rise canyons, a tiger swallowtail sips from zinnias, lays eggs on leaves of the landscaped sycamores. My hope goes with her.
In “Inauguration — January 20, 2021,” a day that brought hope to many, signaling an end to the cruelty and chaos of the Trump administration, Estes declares, “I believe again in hope, vaccines, / the future of our planet,” and the poem concludes:
I want to suspend this tenderness of hope, the way the hummingbird hovers near my face in a quiet vibration of wings.
Similarly, Estes exalts the virtue of patience. “Turning Seventy,” the final poem of the Evening section (“Diving Toward the Horizon — Evening”), heralds the closing of the day in acknowledging the frailties of the aging body, specifically her eyesight, cataract surgery, but
Patience comes to me now, when my time is even shorter, a surprise. I can more clearly eye the Burgundy depths. My glass is three-quarters full.
Indeed, the title of the book comes from a poem called “Annunciation” from the Noon section (“Know My Place — Noon”) in which Estes observes a bumble bee in a foxglove blossom – before moving on to the day lilies, geraniums and violets. “All in measure,” she writes, “life and death. / All in timing and intent.”
Not least of the things Estes cherishes is family. “My Daughter Sleeps a Lot” is a poem about her child’s long COVID (“Tired even after morning and afternoon naps.”), and “Deep Night” is about her husband’s insomnia (“Drawn up by hip discomfort / and the lighter sleep of older age, / he walks slipper-quiet / to the unused bedroom.”). “Metamorphosis” is a meditation on giving her husband a haircut.
“Tea Ceremony,” “Stitching Our Family Together,” “Ties That Bind,” “A Girl’s Best Friend,” “Starting a Quarantine Project,” “Does My Lineage End If My Only Child Has No Children?” are other poems in which Estes reflects on the comforts of family. Even “My Chinese Elm Bonsai Is Family,” a poem in the “Blue-Lavender — Afternoon” section asserts.
“We Imagine Cocktail Bars and Toast Ourselves Around the Dining Table” is an amusing poem that recounts a jolly family game. It starts:
The White Lady had a Cashmere Moment in front of the Decanted Mother-in-Law turning International Orange. Over in the corner, the Alabama Slammer was going at it with the Bahama Mama. What can you say? Opposites Attract. While watching the Hanky Panky, The White Russian dreamt of Dirty Shirley and a Siesta — just too much Stoned Love.
All in Measure is a meditation on life as much as it is a chronicle of the lockdown. Heather Saunders Estes’s outlook is wise and welcome.