Searching for the Poet Deborah Digges (1950-2009) – Part One of a Two-Part Series

American poet and memoirist Deborah Digges (1950 -2009) Photo Credit: Star Black

My Amaryllis

So this is the day the fat boy learns to take the jokes
by donning funny hats, my Amaryllis,
my buffoon of a flower,
your four white bullhorn blossoms like the sirens
in a stadium through which the dictator announces he’s in love.
Then he sends out across the land a proclamation-
there must be music, there must be stays of execution
for the already dying.
That’s how your pulpy sex undoes me and your seven
leaves, unsheathed. How you diminish
my winter windows, and beyond them, the Atlantic.
How you turn my greed ridiculous.
Now it’s as if I could believe in having children after forty,
or, walking these icy streets, greet sullen strangers
like a host of former selves, so ask them in, of course,
and listen like one forgiven to their crimes.
Dance with us and all our secrets,
dance with us until our lies,
like death squads sent to an empty house, put down,
finally, their weapons, peruse the family
portraits, admire genuinely the bride.
Stay with me in this my exile
or my returning, as if to love the tyrant one more time.
O my lily, my executioner, a little stooped, here,
listing, you are the future bending
to kiss the present like a sleeping child.

Deborah Digges from Rough Music, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995

I am no expert on Deborah Digges and her poetry. But I have followed her story with interest: how she won two prestigious prizes for her first two books, wrote two memoirs including one about a son’s struggle and recovery from addiction and was a beloved professor who fell off the high top of the stadium at the university where she worked, an apparent suicide at 59.

I can’t remember what brought me back to Digges during these past few weeks. Was it reading W.S. Mervin’s elegiac tribute to her in Brick Magazine featuring the eponymous poem of her first collection Vesper Sparrows? Or was it the biting and I may say pretty edgy poem, depicting a party with notable American poets, authored by the celebrated memoirist and poet Mary Karr in her 2018 collection The Tropic of Squalor?  That poem mentions Digges by her first name and tells how she died.

No matter how I was led back to Digges I do know that since that time I have been on a search for Digges through her poems and a few about her including the one by Karr and another one I discovered a few days ago by her second husband, the poet Stanley Plumly. And I came back especially to Digges’s poem My Amarylis featured at the top of this blog post. Like so many of her poems what a mysterious strangeness it holds, the rich and surprising images sometimes overwhelming easy meaning. But the strangeness and images so compelling.

What she does, where she goes, with an amaryllis. This seems to want to be an object poem about a flower. And it is. But in such a gorgeously outrageous way. One of the most unusual and vibrantly surprising object poems I have encountered. Amaryllis as fat boy, buffoon, bullhorn blossoms, siren. Its exuberant beauty enough to stay the execution of the already dying.

Yet how do I grapple with this compelling strangenesses in the poem. Especially the absurdity of a stay of execution for the already dying. The strangeness of a dictator being changed by this amaryllis. Lies entering a house like a death squad and admiring the picture of a bride. Then the amarylis bending down to kiss the present, a sleeping child. Wow.

But book ended by the jarring and surprising images are eight lines of exquisite metaphors that create such a superb “isness” of her response to the flower:

That’s how your pulpy sex undoes me and your seven/leaves, unsheathed. How you diminish/ my winter windows, and beyond them, the Atlantic./ How you turn my greed ridiculous./Now it’s as if I could believe in having children after forty,/or, walking these icy streets, greet sullen strangers/ like a host of former selves, so ask them in, of course,/ and listen like one forgiven to their crimes.

What am I left with after reading this poem? With a sense of something other worldly and magical touching me through the writer. A flower so beautiful it can change reality. It can bring blessings. It can transform dictators and lies. It can kiss the present from the future. Perhaps, what a gesture of a beckoning and healing love toward the future. Its impact that big. And I believe it! But to believe it I have to believe that reference to my lily as executioner is a benign one. The execution of, and again, I say perhaps, an old way of living, of being in the world. Forcing her to die to an old self.

But with a sense of sadness I am so struck by the reference to a stadium in this poem and to the amaryllis as an executioner. Perhaps, a not so great future kissing the present. This eerie prefiguring of her death in a stadium, apparently by her own hand according to a police report. One of her sons, Charles, is quoted at the time of her death as saying he strongly questioned that conclusion. Others wonder if she was still overcome with grief over the death of her third husband in 2003.

American memoirist and poet Mary Karr (1955-)

Now, two very different poems that include references to Digges. First, this compelling but also disturbing excerpt from a longer poem that seems primarily concerned not with Digges but with the American poet Franz Wright.

from The Age of Criticism


The message Franz once left
most everybody we knew—Your envy of my work
must be terrible for you—his ex-girlfriend actually got printed
on a tee shirt. He’s left her for a rich, adoring student
that fall, and on New Year’s, Franz insulted Tom’s wife,
so Tom chased him around a table laden with Triscuits

and jug wines of the most sordid variety, till tall,
barrel chested Askald stopped Tom, palm
to flannel-shirt chest, to say— with a drunk’s
well-chewed precision—you’re wrecking my high.
Tom then lunged out into the snow to walk it off.
People started again stabbing cheese cubes

with red and green toothpicks, and somebody’s blowsy wife
who’d cornered the Nobel laureate went back
to twirling a lock of just-then-graying hair
over his forehead, while in the bedroom
her husband snored on a mattress sprawled
with pea coats and thrift-store furs. Tom

was supposed to die, but didn’t; Deborah wasn’t,
but did. Candlelit and slim in oxblood riding boots,
she wore a near see-through black silk blouse
with loose curls of red hair tumbling down her back.
She was about to dump the two smart guys who’s left
their wives for her. Hearing her quote Baudelaire that night,

I believed there might be no one more alluring alive.
But she killed herself. Last April, widowed at sixty,
she jumped off the high stadium of some snotty college
where she taught, and whether she died from grief
or scorn for self or someone gone, it still seems dumb.
Even Askald’s sober now. And nobody invited Franz

anywhere for years before cancer took him,
although we often emailed each other his crisp,
venomous posts to reviewers……

Mary Karr from Tropic of Squalor, HarperCollins, 2018

What a strange and personal poem by Karr. These details of her friends at the same wild party: Franz as in Franz Wright, troubled and brilliant poet who won the Pulitzer like his father James. And Tom, most likely the American poet Tom Lux, her dear friend, like her a recovering alcoholic and a man in his recovery who was a fearless and wonderful teacher to many. Then there is Deborah as in Deborah Digges. But a Deborah who definitively killed herself and and a Deborah judged: it still seems dumb.

And now a very different poem by Digges second husband Stanley Plumly that includes what I see as clear references to Digges although he does not name her directly:


Sometimes, for all time, we just tire of the struggle,
of what Stevens calls “the celestial ennui of apartments,”
from the umpteenth floor looking down through the ultimate
open window. A young man I knew, full of promise,
but filled, even more, with an emptiness he couldn’t
comprehend, took the elevator one night to the top
of his father’s Manhattan building, stepped out
onto the balcony of his father’s living room,
and like an Icarus drawn to the dark side of the moon
flew from this world. Who hasn’t had trouble,
especially at the edge, looking down into the heart
of the air, its depthlessness and purity?
Nor need we climb dream ladders to look down.
In the eyes of the other the pigment of the color
will sometimes separate, like snow, each fleck or flake
the paler version of itself falling, melting.
On Wednesday the king died, on Friday the queen died —
or is it the reverse? — E. M. Forster’s definition
of narrative, and his idea of plot,
the fact that the queen dies of grief.
Causes and their effects, the romance
that halfway down or at the end we’re saved.
What or who she saw at the bottom of her fall
matters less than the weight of pain she carried there —
and all that practice running the stadium stairs
in order to disguise the looking-down,
if only to wonder, time after time, at the distance.

Stanley Plumly (1939-2019) from The Kenyon Review, Summer 2012

American poet Stanley Plumly

Plumly approaches her death with much more nuance than Karr. And he uses a huge slant, a reference to E.M. Forester and a plot trigger of when a king dies the queen dies (of grief) three days later. What a slant reference to a reason, perhaps, for Digges’s death. And a real suggestion of suicide since the poem begins with references to suicide and then asks this provocative question:Who hasn’t had trouble,/especially at the edge, looking down into the heart/of the air, its depthlessness and purity?

But nothing slant about these piercing last six lines:

What or who she saw at the bottom of her fall
matters less than the weight of pain she carried there —
and all that practice running the stadium stairs
in order to disguise the looking-down,
if only to wonder, time after time, at the distance.

For me, what a telling and moving description and the striking detail that Digges may have known the stadium very well. May have exercised there on its steps to avoid something else, a fateful looking-down. Such compassion in these lines, quite unlike Karr’s. And it seems poignant to me that Plumly died on April 11th this year. Digges died on April 10th in 2009.

In part two of this series a few more poems by Digges and a poem dedicated to Digges by Plumly.

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