Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Dirt Angels, by Donald Platt

Reviewed by Jill McCabe Johnson
From Prairie Schooner, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Spring 2011)

Plato's late dialogue Parmenides recounts the tale of the elder scholar questioning young Socrates about his early philosophical ideas. Can only the just, beautiful, and good be the stuff of ideas, Parmenides asks, or do abstractions apply also to the vile and paltry such as hair, mud, and dirt? Socrates responded that surely ideas do not include the petty and worthless objects of the earth, yet he admitted having doubts that made him feel as though he might fall into a bottomless pit. Parmenides told Socrates he was young still but would reach an age when he would not despise even the least of things. In his fourth book of poetry, Dirt Angels, Donald Platt certainly doesn't claim to be Socrates, nor Plato, despite Platt's similar name, but he does portray the perspective of a man who has stood on the verge of his own bottomless pit and come to appreciate the small and terrible, the ordinary and extraordinary. Using motifs such as concrete, mirrors, and, yes, dirt, Platt walks the path from catastrophe to cohesion, demonstrating how lives can be broken yet redeemed through reflection, humility, and responsibility.

In his opening poem, "My Brother's Mirror," Platt turns a harsh mirror on himself, a mirror held by his brother when they were children. Michael, "born with Down Syndrome / liked to shuffle / down the sidewalk holding our mother's hand mirror" while Platt rode by on his bicycle, shouting cruel names and warning Michael to get out of the way. Platt admits to his brother, whose namesake is the archangel Michael, a thwarted attempt at peeking up the babysitter's skirt. Platt doesn't write to purge himself of childhood peccadilloes, though he does take responsibility for them. Years later, the babysitter commits suicide, and their father yanks TV cords in his nursing home, while live CNN coverage shows post-earthquake footage of a woman sifting through the crumbled concrete remains of her house. Platt brings the depth of time to his admissions. Life will change, our homes will be lost, and the people we love will deteriorate then die. Despite these eventualities, even after devastating events like suicide, earthquake, and a father's dementia, the delicate and temporal still persist in reflected memory: Brother, you dropped the hand mirror. / It cracked, but didn't / shatter. It broke the seamless sky into countless / jagged splinters, / but still holds the aspen's trembling leaves, the lilacs, you and me, / all passing things.

The poems that follow act as jagged pieces of that mirror. Platt uses the image to set up the rest of the book, but he also seems to answer another question that Parmenides posed: whether the whole, made of many individual parts, can still be considered as one unit or must be considered as many. Just as the first poem's broken mirror holds all passing things, Platt's reflections on various breaks and losses give cohesion to the entire collection. For example, in "The Breakage," the wife tells her husband she's been thinking of leaving him. When the husband nearly breaks a cut-glass decanter and bowl, Platt exposes the supposedly valuable objects in their life to be merely empty vessels holding nothing but refracted light. Later, the wife looks at her husband as though he were a stranger in the crowded bus terminal where they both wait in line not to buy a ticket but "to buy a ticket out." At the end of the poem, the speaker dries his daughter's hair after her bath and realizes "This is what he stands to lose."

In the next poem, "Dirt Angels," a first-person recounting of a Christmas in Georgia, Platt writes there is no snow where "my two daughters go out / to lie in the red clay // and make dirt angels." Under morning frost, the ground shines with unspoiled radiance. He does not see dirt as Socrates had viewed it, worthless and petty, but imagines the angels telling him to "Praise the dirt." They advise him to change the way he lives, to go back to his daughters and wife: Fathers have no wings. Love is the hard ground where I must walk / / on my knees and eat / the red clay, savor the indigestible grit of the world, open / my mouth and speak.

And speak he does, as he refines his favored form of elastic line tercets. In one poem he mentions Louis Armstrong's "signature time," but Platt has his own signature time that he has sung for the past two decades: "sung" because the lines suggest expansion and contraction like the diaphragm as it swells and flexes in song. A growing mastery reverberates through Platt's supple music, a certain music of uncertain times, and it is reinforced by the shape of his line. Unlike collections in which poetic forms vary to offer relief, Platt's steady form provides harmony and consistency of voice. Because of his rich, varied imagery paired with iambic sensibilities, the form never grows tiresome as it might in less nimble hands. An extended spring-plays-jazz metaphor, however, does run long in the poem when "Spring Does Covers & Original Numbers." Regardless, the back-and-forth, give-and-take shape of his lines lends itself well to conversant poetics within the collection itself, whether or not they were intended as a present-day response to Socratic discourse.

Plato wrote of Parmenides' assertion that if God has perfect authority and perfect knowledge "his authority cannot rule us, nor his knowledge know us, or any human thing; just as our authority does not extend to the gods, nor our knowledge know anything which is divine, so by parity of reason they, being gods, are not our masters, neither do they know the things of men." Instead of looking to the heavens, Platt talks with the dirt angels left by his daughters and learns the lesson Parmenides tried to impart to Socrates, not only to value the ideas and knowledge of even the least of the earth, such as dirt, but to take responsibility for and be master of one's own life on earth.

Continuing and combining these themes of dirt and breakage, Platt hints at our limited time on earth using sidewalks, concrete, and asphalt— the manmade earthen structures that crack and crumble. Ghosts of steam rise from the asphalt, for example, after the death of the poet Tom Andrews in "Elegy in the Rainbow Season." In "What Form Shall the Soul Take," Platt contemplates the soul while placing his hands into the concrete imprints of a stranger's hands. "Will the ten thousand // living things we touch every day / turn only to two cold handprints in concrete?" Similar to Parmenides' question of whether the whole can contain the many, Platt asks, then answers, whether the many in death will be reduced to a remnant impression left in concrete. His answer? "No, the soul is billion and gold bullion. It lives in the wet / concrete that takes / the starred imprint of a woman's palm and hardens."

Platt's awareness of legacy escalates into a search for signs of afterlife, which he weaves throughout the book's elegies. When writing about the death of poet Donald Justice, Platt honors Justice by comparing him to Bach, Mingus, and Monk. He imagines Justice playing piano in the next room but finds only a metronome "ticking adagio, our common measure, sixty-five / heartbeats per minute." Platt's most poignant and plaintive search occurs in the poems in which he writes of his father's death, the only poems that veer from the tercet form. Absence demonstrated through the everyday converts to presence shown in the everyday as Platt travels not only through southern France but more importantly through his grief. Through his reflection on Cezanne, we know Platt's father is ever present. Even when the search produces nothing tangible, Platt carries his father in memory and longing. In the final poem of the book, "Elegy with Lord Shiva and Peonies," Platt says to his father: Come back as the hollow silver maple's /p roots that still grow, clutch, crack our sidewalk.

The broken sidewalk echoes Platt's earlier images of concrete, including the woman sorting through rubble in the first poem. Yet in this final poem the image of the broken sidewalk intimates cohesion despite the personal earthquakes that shake all our lives. Not only does he portray a speaker who has learned to appreciate the paltry such as dirt but a man who has lived long enough to experience and come to terms with loss. Platt savors the indigestible grit of the world. He knows the memories of loved ones remain the foundational, connecting roots in our lives even if the rest of the world, whether the mirror in our hand or the sidewalk beneath our feet, cracks.