75 Poems on Retirement

Edited by Robin Chapman & Judith Strasser
University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, Iowa 52242

Copyright © 2007
ISBN 10:1-58729-527-X Paper. 108 pp. $19.95.

A Review by Daniela Gioseffi
Here and there throughout this anthology of 75 poems on retirement, quotable phrases pop out at us to crystallize the theme of the collection that includes such recognizable names in contemporary American poetry as Grace Paley, Naomi Shihab Nye, Robert Pinsky, Ismael Reed, Ted Kooser, Stephen Dunn, Hayden Caruth, Maxine Kumin, and Sam Hamill, along with several lesser-known poets. The finite nature of our vulnerable human lives, the inevitability of aging and death, the poignancy in the loss of youth, but often the joy in life continuing in a less stressful state into new horizons is explored with humor, irony and sadness.

Among the notable poets, Stephen Dunn’s, “The Carpenter’s Song” is one of the most memorable poems in which the comfort of aging into retirement’s leisure is palpable. “…when I’m no longer young/ let there be poets in my life,/ their words after tastes on the tongue,/ and let me speak those words like a man/ who has heard a spar snap on a ship,’ who has been lost one or twice/; and come back….let the old deaf dog/ sense me coming a long way off,/ ready to forgive anything I’ve done— / and let me call all this: some goddamn luck.” (pp. 28-29)

Grace Cavalieri’s poem, “In the Pinecrest Rest Home,” captures in a vignette the poignancy of aging by portraying an old couple sitting in the garden of a rest home not recognizing each other. “They introduce themselves, each day, /shy at first, careful so as not to harm./ Leisure and light favor them. They both like cats…” (p.16)

Some of the poems are humorous or ironic like Gerald Stern’s “This Was a Wonderful Night,” or like this brief Haiku by John Brandi: “Thinking of retirement/ he realizes/ he never had a job.” (p.12)

Ishmael Reed in “The South Berkeley Branch Closes” laments that elderly blacks who have lost their neighborhood, bank branch to closure have to be eyed with suspicion in the neighborhood where they are forced to do their banking. He reminds us that rampant racism does not end even for the aged in our time, but he ends on a positive note, “Traveling from my house/ To this part of town/ Will become a Freedom Ride.”

Grace Paley’s touching poem, titled “Here,” with her usual pointed economy of language celebrates the deep affection of an old woman for her husband as the realization of her love for him suddenly floods her with feelings as she sits in her retirement garden with her grandchild on her lap. “I am suddenly exhausted by my desire/ to kiss his sweet explaining mouth” (p.69)

This is an enjoyable collection that conveys the pleasures of memory, the sadness of infirmity, and the wonder in everyday life. There are very original and moving poems full of clever ironies among them. The collection ends with an excellent poem by Ronald Wallace, titled “Blessings,” that takes off on various clichés, setting them upside down and angling them for our delight. “Some days, I find myself/ putting my foot in/ the same stream twice;/ leading a horse to water/ and making him drink….All around me people/ are making silk purses out of sow’s ears,/ getting blood from turnips,/ building Rome in a day./…. Some days misery/ no longer loves company….” (pp.91-92).

The collection is an entrance to a season of life when time is both limited and sadly drawing to a feeble close, yet blessed with freedom from drudgery—a time when life can be luxuriant for, at least, some of us who seize the restful, carefree moments and abandon ourselves to carelessness and imaginative new horizons, or who, as Wordsworth said, “recollect the past in tranquility.”

Daniela Gioseffi is a widely published American Book Award winning author of 14 books of poetry and prose. Her latest are Women on War; International Writings (The Feminist Press, 2003) and Blood Autumn (VIA Folios/Bordighera Press, 2006). She won the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, 2007.