“What if my body is not an apocalypse?” writes Liza Katz Duncan in her poetry collection, Given (Autumn House Press, 2023), winner of the 2022 Autumn House Rising Writer Prize. The book is poised at the boundary between eco-poetics and the poetry of personal tragedy. Duncan explores the trauma of environmental cataclysm not simply as context but as metaphor for devastating personal loss through precise images and shattering restraint.
The overarching tone of the collection is grief; beginning in the first section, which depicts a seaside ecology succumbing to industrial pollution and unrelenting hurricanes, through to the second section, where the loss of a child is revealed as the broken heart of this watery disaster, and into the stunning third section, expressed as a long epistolary lament.
The setting is the Jersey Shore, a place where a basement can fill “like a bathtub,” roads can turn “to rivers,” and “chemical clouds stipple the sky.” The opening poem, “Bayshore Elegy,” develops a sense of place through telling details that hint at some of the themes to come: absent children, pollution, personal destruction through alcohol addiction.
Cars hiss on the wet street. Rain dissipates the smell
of low tide, dried seaweed. The bay
spits up a tire swing: sunsick rubber, split rope.
[…] Before slag and smelt and lead, this was clam country.
Then, during Prohibition a causeway for bootleg,
the bottles dumped overboard at the sight of police.
Even now, barefoot, you might cut your feet
on hundred-year-old glass the bay purged.
This is a place where inhabitants “knew the tides like some know train schedules, knew the land / without a map, and by flood stains on the homes / could catalog storms by name” (“The Uncles”). Here, where humans are so intimately connected to the bay, water both beckons and threatens:
At high tide, we get our coffees to go
and walk down to the bay. The sound of water
gainst the sea wall, brash and arrhythmic,
as if something underwater
is arching, is aching, to come up for air.
The poems express a strong grief for environmental collapse: “Given a factory town, smokestacks that leaked poison into the bay until it swelled, / glowed green, too liquid for its frame / …Given clams turned to plastic in their shells” (“Given,” the first of poems by that title). And, always, there is regret for the destruction of the storms: “behind caution tape, a town the bay built and unbuilt” (“Ekphrasis: Sandy”).
Near the end of the first section of Given, the reader encounters revelations of not just environmental but personal grief. In “I Wanted to be Surrounded by Water,” the speaker asserts “I wanted my children to ride their bikes to the end of the road, / climb the guardrail and watch New York gleam across the bay— / …I wanted children, despite the dying world.” The desire for children is couched in anguish. But later, in the same poem, the sorrow for the child herself is revealed:
The child we lost—a girl I don’t know.
She occurs to me in photographic shades: ochre
burnt sienna, vintage bronze. Memory
has softened her outline, as the bay
smooths edges of broken glass,
returning it graspable.
Personal loss, delivered here not through narrative but through image, is deeply tied to place. This story of dreadful personal loss is, of course, the impetus for the book. But in the book’s second section, the poet conveys that story with restraint, sidestepping the pitfalls of first-person storytelling. It is not primarily the speaker’s own story she tells but that of Kristina, a friend who has a daughter but who has lost almost everything else to hurricanes and addiction.
Indeed, a series of four poems folded within the series of Kristina poems tell the story of the speaker’s baby’s death.
These, along with the book’s last poem, are the most intimate poems of the collection and ones in which water imagery intensifies. In “Iceberg,” the direct address to the baby is heartbreaking.
As one crack in the ice expands,
creating hundreds of tiny
icebergs—calving, they call it—
yours was a simple drift, a breaking
Little iceberg. Little
And in “Vessels,” the writing, especially visceral, offers no protection for the reader—or the speaker—from the emotional cataclysm of loss, delivered in simple, quiet images:
Your eyes were fully formed,
though still closed, neither of us seeing the other
when they cut you from me like a paper doll,
both of us comatose, languishing
in the operating room’s fluorescent light.
The final section of Given consists of a single poem, “Landfall.” This title refers to the moment when a storm, having moved across water, meets land. The destructive power of the storm provides a metaphor for the loss of a daughter. This long epistolary poem is a direct address to that daughter and her loss, who is variously invoked as “Dear daughter,” “Dear storm,” “Dear nameless,” “Dear water,” “Dear blameless,” “Dear island,” and, perhaps most poignant of all, “Dear almost.” The poem intersperses couplets with italicized single lines, bringing together the speaker’s voice and quotes from the The New York Times’ coverage of Hurricane Sandy:
Dear daughter Dear nameless
Forgive me I told myself this
Sand-sliver of a town
Was not my ruin
The water rising brushstroke by brushstroke over
Time scales from decades to centuries
Long before your existence or mine
Like a painting of a streetscape filling with water
Lacerations in the canvas
Gleaming like stars through the drying inks
For years, warnings that it could happen here
The spare, unpunctuated lines and the spaces make the silence concrete, as though there is no way to gesture towards what cannot be spoken in this final poem.
The rhythm of the repetition of “Dear daughter” and its variants give this poem both its intimacy and its resonance with lament. Additionally, the rhythm of moving between the speaker’s voice and the journalistic voice reinforces the metaphor.
And it is here, in this final poem, that the speaker reveals her yearning to be forgiven, that arguably universal, irrational response to the helplessness of loss. (If I could take the blame, if I could be forgiven, then maybe the loss could be undone). It is also here, in this final poem, that the book’s title hits home: “Dear daughter given and ungiven,” the poem begins, and the phrase “given and ungiven” recurs several times throughout it.
Paradox is everywhere in Liza Katz Duncan’s beautiful collection, Given. It is the paradox of what is both given and ungiven, built and unbuilt, destroyed and enduring. And rightly so. What else but paradox is it to endure and survive a crushing loss, a cataclysmic superstorm and to create from it a book of such beauty and emotional power?