I Praise My Destroyer: Poems

Overview

In her first new book of poetry since Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman combines her deep understanding of the world with her immense passion for language to craft richly sensual poems that "honor all life/wherever and in whatever form/it may deal."

Imbued with ravishing imagery, these exuberant and lyrical explorations of aging, longing, and death demonstrate Ackerman's full engagement with every aspect of life's process. Ackerman muses on the ...

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I Praise My Destroyer: Poems

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Overview

In her first new book of poetry since Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman combines her deep understanding of the world with her immense passion for language to craft richly sensual poems that "honor all life/wherever and in whatever form/it may deal."

Imbued with ravishing imagery, these exuberant and lyrical explorations of aging, longing, and death demonstrate Ackerman's full engagement with every aspect of life's process. Ackerman muses on the confines of therapy sessions, where she intersects "twice a week/in a painstaking hide-and-seek/making do with half-light, half-speak"; relishes the succulent pleasure of eating an apricot, with its "gush of taboo sweetness"; and imagines the "unupholstered voice, a life in outline" in her stunning elegy to C. S. Lewis. Whimsical, organic, and wise, the poems in I Praise My Destroyer affirm Ackerman's place as one of the most enchanting poets writing today.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Brilliant . . . Ackerman expresses her signature love for the world in all its seething glory. . . . Her sensuality is still in full force."  —Booklist

"[These poems are] full of physical participation in the world, human involvement, and (as one might expect of this scholar of the senses) an eloquent eye."  —Richard Wilbur

"Vivid, playful, abundant, these poems constitute a directory of colors, an assembly of weathers, waters, creatures, and a bold, brash, invincible vote of confidence."  —Anthony Hecht

"[Ackerman's] poems express a sense of sheer joy in physical existence, which she explores in language that has its own intense life. The book is a pure pleasure."  —Louis Simpson

KLIATT
In her title piece, Ackerman expresses themes that appear throughout the collection in these lines: "How can it all end,/spring white in the dogwoods,/sunset's purple rigging/bellied high over the horizon/mating lizards in the yard, and sailboats on the lake/-both with bubble throats?" The impermanence of life, both the drama and quiet beauty of nature, and the need to experience it all; these are all preoccupations of Ackerman's, both in her prose works on the environment and in her poetry. She speaks from the experience, whether watching cabbage moths or working on a cattle ranch. Although Ackerman displays her extensive vocabulary, especially those words gleaned from study of the natural world, she sometimes fails to reach for the profound or unique expression of an emotion or idea, sometimes settling for cliché. In "We Die," a heartfelt tribute to astronomer Carl Sagan, she dilutes her grief by resorting to platitudes like: "Life is not fair, the old saw goes." Or else the metaphor is a stretch, as in "The Sorrow Rangers," which, in addition to being too general, does not work to convey the powerlessness we sometimes feel when experiencing sorrow. Still, Ackerman's poems are important because they speak the emotions we find hard to express, both the sorrow of loss and the celebration of life. She enjoys language. One of my favorites is "Pyrrhic," a poem about letting go, literally letting nature take its course. She teaches us new words: "onion thrip," "wall-rue fern." She's also playful, even writing one piece, a tribute to cats, in Middle English. Often her experiments in language do work, as in more extended pieces where she has a chance to use her descriptivetalents in setting a scene, as in her longest piece, "Cantos Vaqueros," a love song to a Mexican cowboy. But she takes a bit too long to come to the point of her poem—that this hard physical work she does with them takes her out of a mind too busy with words. Ackerman is a writer who should be read, either her prose or poetry, because of her insistence on the necessity of humans to glory in the world that we often have little time to experience, both in its minutiae and its vastness. Her poems are accessible and provocative even if not as masterful as some. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Random House/Vintage, 114p, 21cm, 97-34464, $12.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Sue E. Budin; YA Libn., Ann Arbor P.L., Ann Arbor, MI January 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 1)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679771340
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/2000
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 1,439,126
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Read an Excerpt

WE DIE
--for Carl Sagan

We die despite appointments and feuds,
while our toddler,
who recently learned to say No,
opens and shuts drawers a hundred times a day and our teen braces for the rapids of romance.

We die despite the contracts and business trips we planned,
when our desk is untidy,
despite a long list of things to do which we keep simmering like a pot of rich broth.

We die despite work we cherish,
marrying whom we love,
piling up a star-spangled fortune,
basking on the Riviera of fame,
and achieving, that human participle with no known object.

Life is not fair, the old saw goes.
We know, we know, but the saw glides slow,
one faint rasp, and then at length another.
When you died, I felt its jagged teeth rip.
Small heartwounds opened and bled,
closing as new ones opened ahead.
Horror welled, not from the how but the when.

You died at the top of your career,
happy, blessed by love, still young.
Playing by evolution's rules, you won:
prospered, bred, rose in your tribe,
did what the parent gods and society prized.

Yet it didn't save you, love or dough.
Even when it happens slow, it happens fast,
and then there's no tomorrow.
Time topples, the castle of cards collapses,
thoughts melt, the subscription lapses.
What a waste of life we spend in asking,
in wish and worry and want and sorrow.

A tall man, you lie low, now and forever complete, your brilliant star eclipsed.
I remember our meeting, many gabfests ago,
at a crossroads of moment and mind.
In later years, touched by nostalgia,
I teased: "I knew you when you were just a badly combed scientist."
With a grin, you added: "I knew you when you were just a fledgling poet."

Lost friend, you taught me lessons
I longed to learn, and this final one I've learned against my will: the one spoken in silence,
warning us to love hard and deep,
clutch dear ones tighter, ransom each day,
the horror lesson I saw out of the corner of my eye but refused to believe until now: we die.

WE DIE
--for Carl Sagan

We die despite appointments and feuds,
while our toddler,
who recently learned to say No,
opens and shuts drawers a hundred times a day and our teen braces for the rapids of romance.

We die despite the contracts and business trips we planned,
when our desk is untidy,
despite a long list of things to do which we keep simmering like a pot of rich broth.

We die despite work we cherish,
marrying whom we love,
piling up a star-spangled fortune,
basking on the Riviera of fame,
and achieving, that human participle with no known object.

Life is not fair, the old saw goes.
We know, we know, but the saw glides slow,
one faint rasp, and then at length another.
When you died, I felt its jagged teeth rip.
Small heartwounds opened and bled,
closing as new ones opened ahead.
Horror welled, not from the how but the when.

You died at the top of your career,
happy, blessed by love, still young.
Playing by evolution's rules, you won:
prospered, bred, rose in your tribe,
did what the parent gods and society prized.

Yet it didn't save you, love or dough.
Even when it happens slow, it happens fast,
and then there's no tomorrow.
Time topples, the castle of cards collapses,
thoughts melt, the subscription lapses.
What a waste of life we spend in asking,
in wish and worry and want and sorrow.

A tall man, you lie low, now and forever complete, your brilliant star eclipsed.
I remember our meeting, many gabfests ago,
at a crossroads of moment and mind.
In later years, touched by nostalgia,
I teased: "I knew you when you were just a badly combed scientist."
With a grin, you added: "I knew you when you were just a fledgling poet."

Lost friend, you taught me lessons
I longed to learn, and this final one I've learned against my will: the one spoken in silence,
warning us to love hard and deep,
clutch dear ones tighter, ransom each day,
the horror lesson I saw out of the corner of my eye but refused to believe until now: we die.

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Table of Contents

School Prayer 3
I Praise My Destroyer 4
We Die 7
Elegy 10
Pyrrhic 11
When the Deep Purple Falls 13
Timed Talk 21
Remodeling 24
Boundaries 28
The Sorrow Rangers 29
Wildflowers 30
Therapist 32
Allies 33
Where You Will Find Me 36
By Atoms Moved 39
The Summer Swims 40
Autumn Laps 41
Bluestockings 43
A Herbal 46
Transition 47
Complaint on Her Cat 48
Flying Over Martin's Ferry, Ohio 50
Santa Anna's Surrender 51
Williamsburg, Virginia 53
Buying the Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis 54
Natural Wonders 57
Amber 59
The Consolation of Apricots 60
Underworld 62
Eclipse 64
Some Would Marry Winter 66
Aviatrix 67
Unrequited Poem 68
You Will Think This a Dream 70
Tender Mercies 75
The Thief of Always 76
Searching for the Comet 78
Not Thinking of You 79
San Francisco Sunrise 80
Seasoning 82
The Longing 83
Return to Charlottesville 85
Afterthought 86
Lascaux 87
On Location in the Loire Valley 88
City of Dreams 93
Pumping Iron 95
Gramercy Park 97
Hungarian Woman on Ellis Island 98
Cantos Vaqueros 103
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Interviews & Essays

On Tuesday, April 14th, the barnesandnoble.com Author Auditorium welcomed Diane Ackerman, who discussed her long-awaited new collection of poems, I PRAISE MY DESTROYER.



Moderator: Welcome to barnesandnoble.com, Diane Ackerman. We are pleased you could join us online to discuss I PRAISE MY DESTROYER.

Diane Ackerman: I am delighted to be with you this evening.


Amy K. from Austin, TX: Do you think poetry is a lost art form in 1998?

Diane Ackerman: Austin is the home of Bat Conservation International...No, poetry reflects the heart and soul of the people. That is as much true today as it was in the 19th century. It continues to help us understand the human condition better, our relationships, the panorama of emotions that we have inherited. Throughout the world and in the U.S., poetry continues to be a vitally important art form.


Samantha from Bennington, VT: How do you incorporate nature and all it has to offer to the written word? Aren't you limiting nature in a sense?

Diane Ackerman: All artists find it a challenge to make sense of a three-dimensional world in two dimensions or in something as abstract as music. But through the alchemy of art it is possible to see how art touches us. Language is human made, and how on earth can we use it to understand emotion? That is the great challenge for a writer. One way is to try to find the best metaphors, similes, images, etc. that in combination will overlap the empty space in between the words, that will help map the kingdom of human emotions and ideas; especially for the places where we don't have a workable vocabulary.


Mallory from Washington Valley: Hello, Ms. Ackerman! Can you recommend any theraputic activity that helps your creativity and assists in your your mental flow?

Diane Ackerman: Every day I make time to go out biking through the countryside. Usually the bike rides last about an hour. I try during that time to empty my mind of frets, worries, mind theaters, the talk radio station in the brain -- in short, all of the commotion of life -- and turn a bike ride into a form of active meditation. Biking is a great way to doodle at speed, live in the moment, and enjoy the sensations of being alive. That usually clears mmy mind enough that when I return, I am ready to let my mind fill up again. I am ready to be inspired. I think a nature walk would work as well.


Jerzy from Philadelphia, PA: Do ideas for poems strike you as you are doing research? I noticed a few poems, like "You Will Think This Is a Dream," were inspired by an old Ladies Home Journal, and there is a poem inspired by the legend of Santa Ana. What inspires you, or more specifically, what are the stories behind these poems?

Diane Ackerman: My muse is very miscellaneous. I may be setting out to write about the Antarctic or who the men really were who ended up at the Alamo, or the discovery of electricity, etc. and discover a certain amount of emotional spillage that needs to find form in a poem, that somehow doesn't belong in an essay, so that is one way that some of the poems come about. At other times, I might be just walking down the street, say, and see two people engaged in conversation, and something about the expression on their faces or a gesture that one makes might be powerful or unforgettable, but I am not exactly sure why. So I will jot it down in a notebook. Later it may may well prompt a poem when the importance of the observation becomes clear to me. Sometimes, life's events just send words down my spine. For example, in I PRAISE MY DESTROYER, there is a poem I write to Carl Sagan after his death. Carl had been a friend for almost 30 years, and even after I knew he was ill for some time, his death still came as a shock. There is another poem,"When the Deep Purple Falls," which is a 1,000-word sentence about biking around Otsego Lake in the lavender hours of the morning. In the summer, I often bike with a girlfriend, whom the book is dedicated to, and in these long bike trips, we solve all the problems of the world. That was true on that beautiful purple morning as well, and when the biking was over I found my imagination still in motion, so I sat down and wrote the poem.


John from JWC901@aol.com: Are you really now writing children's books? Is there any truth to that? Why did you make such a switch? I am a big fan of your nature essays...

Diane Ackerman: I haven't stopped writing nature essays. It is just that I love the idea of introducing children to nature. They are children's versions of two adult essays that I wrote, one on monk seals and one on bats. When I go out on expeditions, I am the camera, and I find that taking photos distracts me from focusing in a verbal way on the adventure that is unfolding, so I return home with word pictures, but no photos unless a photographer is with me, like when a National Geographic photographer joined me. It is especially fun to create children's books in which photos can accompany the text. In the case of BATS, the text is a short, modified version of the essay "In Praise of Bats," which appears in THE MOON BY WHALE LIGHT. However, Merlin Tuttle's extraordinary photos of bats accompany the text.


Caroline from Hoboken, NJ: I notice that you dedicated your poem "We Die" to Carl Sagan. Were you close to Mr. Sagan, whom I personally consider one the best minds of the 20th century? Thanks!

Diane Ackerman: I had the great privilege and delight of knowing Carl for almost 30 years. He was on my doctoral committee. Indeed, having him on that committee made it possible for me to work on both the arts and the sciences. My first book was THE PLANETS: A COSMIC PASTORAL, a book of poems based on the science (rather than astrology) of the planets, and Carl generously agreed to be the technical adviser for the book. That was in the early '70s in the innocence of the space program. At a time when it was possible to learn everything that people knew about the planets. Since then so much info has poured in that the task would be a lot harder.


Ertha from Bellingham, WA: Why has it been so long betwen your last book and I PRAISE MY DESTROYER?

Diane Ackerman: It has been six years since JAGUAR OF SWEET LAUGHTER came out. Between then I have been publishng prose books. Sometimes it is difficult for me to choose whether a poem will be put in a prose book as a prose poem or whether a poem will attain its autonomy and find its way into a collection of poems, but probably the main reason that it has been so long is simply that my contract with Random House since JAGUAR has been for a number of books, only one of which could be a collection of poems.


Violet from Baton Rouge, LA: I am a big fan of your books, and I just wanted to tell you that I think your latest book, in addition to your beautiful poetry, also has what I believe to be one of the nicest covers I have seen. Do you choose what you want to put on your cover?

Diane Ackerman: Thank you for your kind and encouraging words. Books get written in a solitary mania, in small rooms, staring at blank sheets of paper, and an author doesn't know if they will touch someone. In answer to your question, sometimes I get to choose the cover. But more times than not I get to revise the cover. In the case of this cover, which I agree is very beautiful, I was able to have certain elements of it altered so it would look the way it does now. Bu the original photo and color the designer at Random House chose. I think all his books have been very wonderful. I am lucky that the disgns for all the jackets have been so wonderful.


Susan from Oklahoma: Did you study poetry as a high school student? If so, who spoke particularly to you? I teach juniors and seniors and have a difficult time choosing which poets to teach since individuals respond so differently to different poets.

Diane Ackerman: Unfortunately, I didn't study poetry in high school, and I grew up in a time when teachers encouraged students to make trees with realistic colors, they didn't encourage creativity. I think their motives were wonderful, they wanted kids to be as normal as possible and fit in. But now I know that students are encouraged to be creative, and they are offered wonderful works to read, and art is a dignified, respected profession. Many of these students I see as college students who already have a good background in literature and a skill in writing, so bless you for your work. When I was a college freshman I began reading poetry, and my favorites were Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, and Walt Whitman. I wouldn't necessarily recommend them for high school students. Here is one that you might like, a novelist friend of mine, Jeanne Mackin, and I recently edited a Norton anthology, THE BOOK OF LOVE, which contains about 700 pages of writings about love in different genres, and I've got a hunch that high school students might enjoy learning about poetry if it also was about romance.


Brenda Marsh from New York City: Do you think that musicians are the modern-day poets?

Diane Ackerman: No, I think musicians are the modern-day musicians. It must be wonderful to be born into a world of sound. Most poets I know would love to be composers, but most composers I know would also love to be poets. Each of the art forms stakes out its territory and has unique contributions to make to our understanding of what our spectacle of art is all about. I don't see the two overlapping, except to the extent that there have been times in history when poems have mainly been sung, and humpback whales use rhyme to remember their longer songs.


Sharon W. from Scotch Plains, NJ: I have read your poetry and nonfiction. Do you have any desire to write some fiction?

Diane Ackerman: I have great admiration for fiction. But I think of it as a very high-class form of lying. If you ask me to describe a rose and spin off ideas about it and the psychology of the people who love roses for 300 to 400 pages, I will happily oblige, but if you ask me what a woman crossing a room did before I saw her I have trouble coming up with an answer. I don't have a fiction writer's sense. However, I am married to the fiction writer Paul West (his latest novel is TERRESTRIALS). Our creative habits are similar in many ways but compleley different in other ways.


Margaret from Short Hills, NJ: Do you think mankind has abused nature and our environment to the point of irreversible damage? What can we do to hinder this destruction?

Diane Ackerman: I am very optimistic about the future. We still have a lot of distance to cover before we become responsible stewards of nature, and it is a shame that we are better able to transform the world than to understand it. We happen to be at the top of the food chain, buy we jumped the line. Other animals can't keep up with us. All of that is a shame. However, what encourages me is how concerned we are, how concerned even children are about the future of the natural world. When I talk with teens and elementary school kids, I don't need to inspire them about nature, they already have summer volunteer jobs working with the environment and a determination to make a difference. I find that extremely hopeful. We must continue fighting this battle. We must be vigilant, but I think in the end we will prevail.


Michelle from Silver Spring, MD: Good evening Ms. Ackerman! What is "timed talk"?

Diane Ackerman: This book of poetry is divided into five books: one section about love, one about life and death, one section contains natural history poems, one section is set on a cattle ranch where I had signed on for a year, and one is about psychotherapy. Timed talk is a "metaphor" I use for the therapy hour.


Tracey from TVR22@aol.com: What aspects of nature and science do you personally find most interesting?

Diane Ackerman: I am a grat fan of the Universe. All of it interests me, and it interests me in detail, so for me there is no separation bewteen science and nature. It all happens on the same continuum. In one sense the Grand Canyon is the same as the great wilderness of the city. All of it is nature. All of it is how life on our planet expresses itself. So I love studying animals, but of course humans are my favorite animal. In a book like A SLENDER THREAD, out in Vintage paperback, I write about nature and human nature, science , technology, the dark night of the soul and the daily lives of squirrels. In my mind all those things fit together.


Moderator: It was a pleasure to discuss I PRAISE MY DESTROYER with you, Diane Ackerman. Thank you for taking the time to field our questions. Any final comments for the online audience?

Diane Ackerman: I would just like to wish you all a sweet and sunny spring.


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