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Before all other things, what pervades Ruth Lepson’s work is a sense of the artist as perpetually emergent. Lepson, a Massachusetts local and the New England Conservatory’s poet-in-residence, has the liberating aura of a contemporary poet whose work remains relatively unknown. In light of this fact, her new collection of poems, “I Went Looking for You,” enriches a sense of the human experience that is at turns both emotionally resonant and aesthetically restrained.
Lepson’s poetry is filled with tender descriptions of places that clearly hold significance to her as a Massachusetts local. These locations are, more often than not, oriented around the ocean—especially the seaside town of Swampscott, MA. In particular, “Ocean at Bay, Swampscott” lovingly describes the poem’s namesake with an eye for detail only poets can manage. Lepson describes the many colors of Swampscott’s water—“blue ice, glint-white, brown”—paying attention to every creature that comes along and enjoys the scene with her: turtles, a Dalmatian, and a pigeon. Lepson boldly declares: “I love this town.”
The sea also figures as an object of love throughout the collection. In “Separation,” a nostalgic description of a failed marriage addressed to the narrator’s partner, Lepson ruminates on the intimacy of swimming as “the first thing in months that felt like you.” The narrator’s feelings for the ocean are bittersweet and complex, in the same way that feelings towards an ex-partner would be. “The Boy” describes the sea as “a cold dream,” which is “on the surface scary, empty.” Indeed, one of the earlier poems, “Where Seagulls Fly,” reveals that the narrator’s seaside sense of relief stems from it being “close to the end of something.” Lepson holds two forms of transience parallel: that of the open ocean against that of human life.
Others among Lepson’s collection—those poems that seem to be more portrait than anything else—are caught up in the concept of mortality. “Motet for Mom” consists purely of fragmented conversations between a daughter and her hospitalized mother. The poem is made all the more powerful for its ambivalence toward the poignant dialogue exchanged between loved ones who will shortly be torn apart from each other. “October 7, 1994,” “For Robert Creely,” and “Selah,” compiled in succession, are each dedicated to Lepson’s friends who have passed away. These poems struggle with balancing the celebration of life and the mourning of death. “How tired I am of appreciating the gift of life,” Lepson writes.
For Lepson, death is not the only form that dissolution between people can take. “The Poem of J” is placed between “Motet for Mom” and the elegiac triptych. The narrator remembers her past with the titular “J”—the things that made her angry, things that now seem petty—during an impromptu phone call after many years apart. In “Steps,” a changing relationship “dismembers [the narrator’s] life.” For the poet, losing someone is just that—even when they’re still alive.
Lepson deals heavily in the theme of divorce. Her narrators mourn and reflect on the changing nature of relationships. The paired set of poems, “The Day of Our Divorce Hearing” and “Dissolution,” emphasize the internal conflict of an untenable emotional connection. The former includes lines like, “Lately I don’t feel as if I lived with you,” and later on: “I love you as much as I ever did.” “Concert at the Gardner Museum” and “Lobby of a New York Hotel” meditate on the power that even the passer-by can hold over a person. “Imagining the Imprisonment of Ms. Lu Hsiu-Lien” and “Anne Sexton on the Cover” describe not a physical death but a death of the essences of people “from what was done to them,” from incarceration to exploitation. All are reflections on the way people change.
This transience, this living “close to the end of something,” reflects on Lepson’s observations about people as well. Lepson reveals why she writes so fondly of these places—places like Swampscott’s shores—in the very first poem in the collection “These Trees.” After the narrator has left, the trees will still be there just as they always have been, and her emotions “will have been / just that / mine.” Her locations are timeless, though she and her loved ones may not be.
“Clark Park,” the poem from which the collection gets its title, combines meditations on people with ones on places. Clark Park itself is filled with trees whose “trunks are solid,” ready to exist for many years. The people are fickle: “I know if you touched me / I could relax. / I went looking for you, angry / at myself for that.” As such, the emotions are complex and mercurial. However, the collection closes with the reconciliatory “He Called and All,” where the narrator “persisted / and smiled since life / is surrounded with life.”
Much like the places Ruth Lepson affectionately describes in her poems, her themes are timeless. Her words are heart-felt and artfully laid out. The poems are lively in their melancholy and accepting in the face of mortality. Passionately human, “I Went Looking For You” is a collection that feels at once familiar and astounding.
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