Award-winning and nationally known poet Judith Roche lives in the heart of Leschi. I almost missed her unassuming house on a steep forested hill that descends down to the lake, but once inside, I immediately felt her poetic sensibility in the subtle aesthetic details of her home. She opened our conversation with the declaration that she loves living in a house with a view of the woods that is ten minutes from downtown. That partnership of nature and culture fills her poetry, but never peacefully. Her acute perceptions pierce into our hearts.
Even as a child growing up in Detroit, Michigan, in the midst of a radical family of union organizers, Judith Roche spontaneously loved poetry: she read Longfellow, Wordsworth, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Later she got a BA in English literature and an MA at the New College of California, studying with Robert Duncan and Diane de Prima, and began her career as a high school English teacher.
But her activist family roots emerged as she taught poetry to children in correctional facilities and to adults in federal and state prisons. She deeply believes in “teaching incarcerated youth to write poetry as a way of finding out the best of who they are.”
Rather than enumerate her many accomplishments and awards, I want to suggest here why her poetry breaks through traditional aesthetic restraints to speak so directly to us.
As a writer focused mainly on visual art, I first responded to the vivid imagery such as “Sunday morning sun flaring through/my kitchen window, /sun-struck tulips/ on my breakfast table/ have spread themselves wide open/showing everything they’ve got inside/ which they’ve kept/hidden for days.” Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings come to mind in the sexual innuendos of the lines.
She told me that poems find their own rhythms, they are a type of music; she feels where it ought to break, emphasize, stick out. Reading poetry out loud reveals those qualities more quickly, but you can also experience the music of her poetry reading silently and alone.
Roche’s fourth book, All Fire All Water (Black Heron Press, 2015) has four sections, with titles that concisely correspond to her life lived fully, but not easily, and her current preoccupations: “Rivers Have Memories” unrelentingly gives us the sounds and scars of nature; “A Bird Caught in the Throat” speaks of the realities of our contemporary political life, (“Another word for terror is a bird caught in the throat”); “The Husbands Sweet” invokes the pains and pleasures of marriage (“the bitter bundled in the honey’s swarm”); “We are Stardust” meditates on life and death: (“how do we know where we are when the stars we navigate by no longer exist”).
For each poem, Roche selects painfully precise words evoking deep emotions that move inexorably toward a final line that can leave us breathless, uncomfortable, or shocked. Sometimes she invokes Walt Whitman’s style, or the rhythms of a folk song, or a nursery rhyme, or Dante or Homer (as in her excruciating “The Face of War”: “With polyphonic voices, we sing/the horror of these mutilated cities/where immortal cruelty roams”).
The content-laden lines have complex poetic forms. For example, “Bee Villanelle” pays homage to the disappearing bee. “Villanelle” refers to a nineteen-line poem with specific patterns. But we never sense constraints in the flow of the ideas and feelings, so carefully expressing the tragedy of the bee. “They were with us so long./Heavy with gold dusted bodies they go. / We’ll miss their sibilant song.” The villanelle repeats the first and third line throughout in a fixed pattern, but as we read it the first time, we feel that we want to hear it again and again, just as the bees have always been there every summer. The form perfectly fits the subject of the poem, and the words perfectly fit the tragedy.
The last part of the book “We are Stardust” speaks of aging and death, both specifically as in the case of a poem dedicated to two women who have died, “Pat and Mary” (“In this dream, the dead girls are alive.”) and literally in the poem about the ghats of Varanasi, the city on the Ganges in India where Hindus cremate their dead (“It’s all fire and water here.”) The poem “Metaphors of Dust” perfectly captures Roche’s unusual imagination: “As it turns out, we actually are stardust,” an irresistible declaration that both explodes a metaphor and creates one.
In Seattle we can experience Roche’s poetry integrated into the fabric of our city. For example, as part of a 2002 citywide public art program focusing on the survival of salmon, she persuaded the Army Corps of Engineers to introduce her poems into the audio system at the fish-viewing windows inside the fish ladder at the Ballard Locks. With the push of a button, we can hear her read a poem that corresponds to what we are seeing in the window according to the five different phases in the salmon cycle.
Judith Roche’s poetry sharpens our experience of the world and speaks to the crucial concerns of our time. We are so fortunate to have her in our midst.
I believe in the cave paintings at Lascaux,
the beauty of the clavicle,
the journey of the salmon.
I believe in all the gods –
I just don’t like some of them.
I believe the war is always against the imagination,
is recurring, repetitive, and relentless.
I believe in fairies, elves, angels and bodhisattvas.
Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy,
I believe Raven invented the Earth
and so did Coyote. In archeology
lies the clue. The threshold is numinous
and the way in is the way out.
I believe in the alphabets, all of them
and the stories seeping from between their letters.
I believe in dance as prayer, that the heart
beat invented rhythm and chant –
or is it the other way around?
I believe in the wisdom of the body.
I believe that art saves lives
and love makes it worth living them.
And that could be the other way around, too.
By Susan Noyes Platt, www.artandpoliticsnow.com