We don’t talk much about living among the dying, but it’s something that becomes a bigger part of our lives for every year we get. I’m not trying to depress you. I promise; this review will be more uplifting than anything. Still, the fact remains, with each passing year, regardless how well you age, how youthful your outlook remains, how physically fit you keep yourself, more and more people you know will die. Even tougher than the death, though, are the ones we love who spend years dying before they finally reach the end. You can’t blame them for hanging on as long as they can. Most of us will choose this life over the unknown that comes next. You also can’t spend time among the dying without struggling with your own huge questions about life and meaning and mortality and all the things we can never seem to understand.
This is the context behind Tim Seibles’ latest poetry collection, One Turn Around the Sun. Both of Seibles’ parents are in their 90s. His father is bedridden. His mother suffers from dementia. Seibles acts for his father and remembers for his mother. He lays out the complicated equations in poetic form, hoping this will all add up to something.
The collection begins with poems about his mother and father, about their youth and beauty, their successes, the challenges they overcame and the abuses they handed down to their children. In just a few poems, Seibles makes them people and lets readers feel the love. Then he hits us with the first of three poems titled “The Hilt.” In each, Seibles inserts himself into his parents’ narratives. He starts out as a kid in his parents’ world and moves through adulthood, trying to understand them as adults now that he himself has been an adult for twice as long as he was ever a child. He takes the blows that his parents’ current struggles lay on him: his mother, when he identifies himself as her son, says, “I’ll look into that”; his father, in a later “The Hilt” poem, laughs about “going to seed” and endlessly watches repeats of 1950s TV Westerns—Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman. At first, “The Hilt” (and the other two sessions of “The Hilt”) hits us with such raw emotion, such vulnerable honesty, that we can only witness it. On repeated readings, these three poems raise the big questions of this book. If our identities are constructed mostly from our memories, what happens when our memories become “a trail of crumbs/ in a woods flocked with birds”? What kind of things are memories—so malleable, so personal, so fragile—to build an identity on anyway? What moments of our lives have real meaning? How do we live with what we’re constantly losing?
Heavy questions, I know.
Seibles is honest with us about his struggles. “So many days I’m in this coffee shop,” he tells us, “writing to make a case for the beauty that begins and ends/ with us.” And the poems are filled with these beauties: the tender moments between a parent and a child, love when we find it, sex when we can enjoy it, old friendships, fleeting moments of perfection. Seibles reminds us:
If the self
is a small ship
one of its sails
some of the time,
with air like this
Seibles also balances the heavier poems with villanelles—rhythmic poems with a very specific structure. These poems often begin or end the sections of the book. They’re catchy. They’re almost like Motown. When I read them, I tap my foot along and wish I could lay down a James Jamerson-style bass line to accompany it. These poems blow a gentle breeze into the collection, plump our sails to keep going.
About halfway through, Seibles includes the 12-page poem that lends the collection its title. It’s an autobiography in blank verse. Like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” “One Turn Around the Sun” is both explicitly personal and unavoidably American. These poems tell us what our culture has turned us into and what we can do about it. The poem’s positioning in the collection, once we’ve already learned so much about the poet, invites us to go deeper inside. But I also feel like it should be required reading on its own, one of those poems we all study so we can know a little more about who we are and what it’s like to be someone screaming from the margins.
Seibles’ previous collection, Fast Animal, was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Theodore Roethke Prize. It’s an amazing book. Flawless. To be honest, I thought it would be the peak of Seibles’ career and I’m amazed to say One Turn Around the Sun tops it. It’s so engaging that, when I finished, I turned to the first page and started reading again. And I know the subject matter can, at first, seem too sad or heavy. It’s not. Trust me. We all feel better when we talk about these things.