'To Look Out From' Poems by Dede Cummings


BRATTLEBORO — Dede Cummings has chosen the perfect title for her new collection of poems. Wherever we are in space and time that is where we look out from. We bring everything we are to that look-out point. Cummings reminds her reader that Henry David Thoreau says, so typically, "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."

In several Cummings' poems, the speaker looks out from our coasts, east and west. The unbounded sky, the sheltering coves, the sand and rocks, the spartina grass growing and blowing in the sand — these stir her imagination and memory.

I judge that Cummings was raised on the East Coast and learned the sea's ways from her father. "And I am safe / like I felt when you turned the boat / into the Salt Pond coves," she writes in a poem about learning to navigate the channel buoys off Point Judith, Rhode Island. In a prose poem, she remembers, "He'd raise a finger to his lips and look around, daring us to look through the tall grass, or out through the channel to the sea beyond." Early on Cummings learned to look out from.

But these are poems from a mature woman's point of view, not a child's. It is no innocent girl who yearns for "a boy on an island without a boat" whom she cannot bring home to mother. "Oh/ please forgive me for never introducing you, / island life is far too remote; / parent eyes are calm waves coating the shore." Is there any better way to speak of the conflicting desires to be both daughter and the lover who will "never stop hoping for an offshore breeze" to carry her to that island?

Cummings' poems are about human connections, sexual and otherwise. In "The Alibi," a co-ed gives herself to a stranger: "Down they go to the bottom of the rickety stairway, down / to the river, like the song, only this time there is no baptism, / only rough kisses, lips that are like sandpaper ." In "Mending," sisterly friction mars a quiet evening at home: "She leaves the house mumbling as we await the angry wind of her return." In "Headscarves," common housework yields womanly connection: "My mind wanders, as I clean mechanically, / To women / Around the world / Wearing their own headscarves."

A set of deeply reflective poems are built from the ordeal of the poet's own daughter's terrible road crash. Nearly killed, the daughter and a cousin are "pinned to/the guardrail like slumped dolls." During rehab in Brooklyn, the mother bathes her daughter: "This is one of those moments the mother wishes / the accident had never happened; that it did, / lies deep under the pores of her daughter's gleaming skin." Mother finds company in Walt Whitman: "Throb, baffled and curious brain! /throw out questions and answers!" Back in Vermont, the mother's "first act

being at my home / is to clean, vacuum; / ready my space / for what is to come: / Nothing? A void?"

Mature poems, indeed. And a great variety. Cummings pays homage to standard poetic forms, yet takes studied liberties so that her poems are hers alone. She maintains a narrative line in her poems, but doesn't hesitate to swerve when she feels the need. Fine details, word play, historical references, apt quotations — all the stuff serious poets work with — are here in this small collection. Cummings provides notes to aid the reader with her more obscure references.

Dede Cummings is a poet, book designer and publisher. She lives in West Brattleboro. A graduate of Middlebury College, she has participated in the college's Bread Loaf Writers' Conferences where she has rubbed elbows with some of the country's best modern poets, many of them listed in her Acknowledgments. In "To Look Out From" Cummings proves yet again what a valuable asset she is to the Brattleboro literary community.

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Charles Butterfield's memoir, "Seeking Parmenter," was published by Hobblebush Books in 2015.


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