I Praise My Destroyer: Poems

I Praise My Destroyer: Poems

by Diane Ackerman

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Diane Ackerman's poems reveal her intense response to the several worlds of nature, science, and society. Her lyricism fuses wit and sobriety, meditation and activism, and she confronts us with figures both real and fantastic.

As always, her strong connection with the natural world, the realms of language and literature, myth and imagination, combines with her…  See more details below


Diane Ackerman's poems reveal her intense response to the several worlds of nature, science, and society. Her lyricism fuses wit and sobriety, meditation and activism, and she confronts us with figures both real and fantastic.

As always, her strong connection with the natural world, the realms of language and literature, myth and imagination, combines with her deep understanding of the sciences to offer her readers a singular American voice. This is not a voice crying in the wilderness, but one that gives forth songs of joy and wonder.

Organized into seven sections, including "Timed Talk," "By Atoms Moved," and "Tender Mercies," I Praise My Destroyer is less an assorted collection than an organically coherent whole, one that reveals Ackerman's true calling as a twentieth-century metaphysical poet of the highest order.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

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)
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

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

--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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Meet the Author

Diane Ackerman, a poet, essayist, and naturalist, received her M.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D. from Cornell University. Her poetry has been published in leading literary journals, and in the books The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral; Wife of Light; Lady Faustus; Reverse Thunder: A Dramatic Poem; and Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems.

Her works of nonfiction include A Slender Thread; The Rarest of the Rare; A Natural History of the Senses; A Natural History of Love; the critically acclaimed The Moon by Whale Light and Other Adventures Among Bats, Crocodilians, Penguins, and Whales; and On Extended Wings, her memoir of flying. Monk Seal Hideaway and Bats: Shadows in the Night are two of her books for children.
She has received many prizes, including the Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets. She has taught at a variety of universities, including Columbia and Cornell. Her essays about nature and human nature have appeared in National Geographic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Parade.

From the Hardcover edition.

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