Dialogues with Rising Tides by Kelli Russell Agodon
Copper Canyon Press
Talking in Truths: A Review of Dialogues with Rising Tides by Kelli Russell Agodon
Review by Jessica Gigot
I received my COVID-19 vaccination shots in March and have been slowly resuming some of my pre-pandemic activities. The world seems new and different in many ways, brimming with possibility, yet I feel incredibly fragile. Kelli Russell Agodon’s fourth collection, Dialogues with Rising Tides, was released this spring and I find myself going back to these fiercely honest poems again and again for validation and guidance during this awkward re-entry period. We are supposed to be getting back to normal, but I no longer know what normal is anymore.
Throughout the seven sections of this book, Agodon’s poems serve as both the life vest and the beacon in these strange times. In the poem “Grace” she writes, “Even those who are living well/ are tired” and her sharp wisdom and quizzical enlightenment rips through any remaining formalities to explore a well of deeper truths about that actual nature of things. The realities of loss and suffering, both personal and global. In the poem “How Damage Can Lead to Poetry,” Agodon writes, “Damage creates the thought/ of brokenness: my ocean never has enough/ songbirds, my life never has enough/song.” As a whole, these frank and imaginative poems are a blueprint for how to be open to the world and all its wonders, while learning how to endure perpetual pain regardless of the origin, be it environmental degradation or suicide.
While seasoned with humor, specifically in many of her titles (“I Don’t Own Anxiety, but I Borrow It Regularly” or “To Help with Climate Change, We Buy Rechargeable Sex Toys”), the poems in Dialogues with Rising Tides do not shy away from important issues we need to be talking about, like climate change and mental health, and Agodon’s humor does not diminish the weight of these issues either. In fact, it offers a space for vulnerability.
In the poem “Bravery,” Agodon begins in the first person. “Maybe I’m in a state of depression/ or maybe it’s another exhausting evening,” she writes. Halfway through the poem, she begins to refer to her body in the third person as if it is detached, something separate. She writes, “I will wrap a blue robe around her/ damp body and lead her to bed.” This shift is significant and the poem deftly reorients the reader to our own understanding of courageous behavior. She concludes “bravery, say the morning birds outside her/window, bravery, as I watch her rise.”
One of the most striking (and helpful) poems to me is “Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror” which occurs early on in the book. Agodon writes, “America breaks my heart/ some days and some days it breaks itself in two.” In this poem she describes a woman having a breakdown in a mall, who throws her purse “across the floor into Forever 21.” This scene is visceral and also instructive. How we carry ourselves and others matters and perhaps in this post-pandemic world we will all learn to approach our lives, and each other, with a little more ease and care.
In a previous Tinderbox Poetry Journal interview with Martha Silano, Agodon commented on her life as a poet. “I guess for me the success is driving the boat without hitting any manatees or slamming into shore, and these days, I’m just thankful for arriving at the dock safely, not falling in mid-ride.” Dialogues with Rising Tides not only arrives at the dock safely, it’s a masterful example of how to walk in the world—with grace, humor, honesty, and compassion. Written prior to the pandemic, this book is surprisingly timely. Beyond the current moment, I want to keep this introspective collection close for a long time like that old friend you turn to when you need to be reminded how it feels to truly be yourself.
Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, and teacher. She lives on a small, sheep farm in the Skagit Valley. Her second book of poems, Feeding Hour, was published in 2020 with Trail to Table Press, an imprint of Wandering Aengus Press. Jessica’s writing appears in several publications such as Orion, Taproot, and Poetry Northwest and she is a poetry editor for The Hopper. Her memoir, A Little Bit of Land, will be published by Oregon State University Press in 2022.