Forbidden Plums by Peggy Dobreer
Glass Lyre Press, 2021
45 pages, $12.00
Review by Alicia Elkort
Peggy Dobreer’s chapbook of poems, Forbidden Plums, begins with a poem “Tine & Promise,” that takes us through the creative process, and in doing so illustrates that through fire, fold, bite, hiss, and grimace, the promise of a “dull golden gift” will be brought forth, unfinished, nevertheless born. The poems, some written at the beginning of the pandemic, others written before but assembled into the chapbook at that time, take us through a measure of suffering where, like the crucible of the first poem, something of significance is wrought from the impossible struggle—a virus that leaves devastation in its wake, where in her poem “Newborn,” “A doctor is forced to choose for God…” The poetic voice in “Crossings” understands that however a flower blooms (“some trees require cross-pollination. / Others volunteer between cracks in the asphalt. / They don’t care,”) what remains is beauty. And that is the potential borne of suffering. When we’re in it, there is nothing but suffering, but then we begin to craft from our experience something of meaning, even if what we create is simply the courage to say “I suffered,” or as Dobreer writes in “Fool’s Gold in the Eyes of Love,” “This is my body, this house of peril.” The abundantly beautiful imagery of the poems in this chapbook, the playfulness of word choice and lineation is, in and of itself, a promise, a “golden gift” forged from sorrow and written by a poet with a keen eye and a willing heart.
For Dobreer, the early pandemic months were a time of deep isolation. In the poem “III. Discords,” she writes, “silence becomes / too great for my room to contain,” a time that raised unseen elements of her psyche to the surface. In the poem “Phantom in Sight”she writes, “Apparitions are closer now,” and “There is no invitation to unshelter in place.” The poetic sensibility grapples with an existence frozen, suspended in solitude. There is time to contemplate what it might mean if one were to die of a coronavirus. “I will miss this / forever if I pass in seclusion, roomed in a / safety that swallows me full…” Dobreer does not use the word “whole,” as in “swallows me whole,” but selects instead the word “full,” a calculated choice, full as in full of—longing, loss, love, adventure—a heart beating with life and yearning, a panoply of experiences left to explore, desires yet to be realized. A reader could pull despair from what is unrealized, but the poems as a collection are asking us to look for the gold, for the gift that reveals itself only when we imagine there is one to find.
The poem “Glistening” draws our attention to what might happen if we have time to be present, to relish a sensual physical experience, to learn what brings joy, even amidst the challenge of a world caught in the grip of a deadly pandemic. Dobreer writes, “…who would have guessed I would come to love rain, walking / till drenched in the keen emerald eyes of a twinkling Marina Green.” In this, Dobreer demonstrates the golden promise.
In becoming present, Dobreer shows us in the poem “V. Simulation” how to come back to the body, where the memory of “…the hook of / your arm under my neck, or the weight of / your head on my chest,” is a psychic weight that will hold us through uncertainty. The person is not with the poet (which is the experience of loss), but the memory of weight on the body is. Dobreer, with a background in dance, finds in the body shelter, a kind of homecoming where the body brings us into the present moment. In the poem “Of a Middle Temper,” she writes, “Listen with your skin and bone. / Ears have so little purpose / in the hunger of the heart.” This poet tells us to stay with ourselves, to live inside of the body, the truth of the body. In “Red Feathered Flock” she writes, “I don’t care for wings any longer. / Give me a clean carved scapula, punk rock mantle, and bones.” Even the spiritual cannot assuage us as much as the body.
Ultimately, the pandemic brings Dobreer to a reckoning where she finds a way through the split seam of suffering into another way of being, the promise of the first poem. The pandemic brought solitude that, for many, is now missed because it helped us measure what has meaning. In a poem titled “Trust,” Dobreer suggests we let go of the sweater we never wear, a metaphor for the things we no longer need, the things that weigh us down, and instead find the joy that arises when releasing what one thought one wanted. “Let go the sweater, your wings … Twirl your skirts around the / meadow, poppies are beginning to bloom.”
The final poem “Gathered Safely In” and also the final line of the chapbook leaves us with a question, “Will we gather safely in?” which serves many purposes; a philosopher’s response to an unprecedented time; a generous opening for other voices; and a vulnerability. I want to reach out and say, “yes we will,” but I know the answer to that question will be different for each person. For me the answer to her question lies in the penultimate poem “Painted Ladies & Pants” which begins, “Silk pillowcase over clouds of buckwheat husk…” Loss, an inevitability of the human condition, is tough and painful. We, with our fears and our love, are amalgamations of husk and silk, and Dobreer is asking us to place our focus on what serves. Forbidden Plums demonstrates how language can turn rough flaxen to silk, or loss to, if not gain exactly, then acceptance. In this, her poems are like psalms of presence, the ordinary made sacred by the simple act of slowing down and taking note, “…You could see one bright /flower in a crib of soft mud, like a solitary cloud wisping for a miracle.”
Peggy Dobreer is a poet and former choreographer, who brings movement, somatic meditation, visual craft and an enduring love of letters to Slow Lightning Lit’s International online practice, curated events, and E=Mc2Bodied poetry workshops. She studied poetry at the Charles University, School of Anglophile Studies in Prague, received a residency with Suzanne Lummis at the Institute for the Study of Los Angeles at Occidental College and is a Community of Writers Poetry alum.
Dobreer has two collections from Moon Tide Press: In the Lake of Your Bones, 2012 and Drop & Dazzle, 2018. Forbidden Plums was published by Glass Lyre Press in 2021. She was awarded Downey Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 Poetry Matter’s Prize, in association with NASA and has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize.Many of Peggy’s poems have been anthologized; most recently in Kyoto Journal: Reflections from Asia,Cultural Weekly, Aeolian Harp Review, Volumes I & V and upcoming in Beat Not Beat Anthology. Books, links and how to connect can be found at Peggy Dobreer’s website.
Alicia Elkort’s first book of poetry, A Map of Every Undoing was published in 2022 by Stillhouse Press with George Mason University, after winning their book contest. Alicia’s poetry has been nominated several times for the Pushcart, Best of the Net, and the Orison Anthology, and her work appears in numerous journals and anthologies. She reads for Tinderbox Poetry Journal and works as a Life Coach. Alicia lives in Santa Fe, NM where praise and clouds are part of her everyday experience. For more info or to watch her two video poems, visit Alicia Elkort’s website.