By Margaret Rozga. (Cornerstone Press, 2021).
Review By Judy Barisonzi
Fans of Peggy Rozga’s poetry will find both old favorites and new directions in her most recent collection,
Holding My Selves Together: New and Selected Poems (Cornerstone Press, 2021). What holds the book together are Rozga’s reflections on developing a strong self as a confident and powerful woman. In the book’s four sections, she offers us different poetic paths toward this goal.
The first path, “Alice Marathons,” is Rozga’s retelling of the story of Alice in Wonderland. The young Alice is contrasted with her sister, who “brings bound up words” to the picnic, reading books while Alice “tucks scarcely realized words/into her pocket” (“Alice Runs,” p. 3). “[L]ong[ing] for adventure, for/something keen and daring, for/something to delight her hungry eye (“After Lunch,” p. 5), Alice journeys down the rabbit hole of self realization. The sister is not open to adventure, or to rabbits: “Wish we could/keep them from our garden” (“Wake Up Please,” p. 14), but Alice knows the garden is a place of discovery. Moving back and forth in these poems between she and I, Rozga presents Alice as a poet, one who must live with uncertainty and flux:
I begin to write pause no that’s not the way
to start pause think again better this start
than none it will come to me later cross out
delete get up walk away (“Alice Runs,” p. 3)
Running is a recurrent theme in these poems, at first “running away from myself” (“Acknowledging Alice,” p. 2) but later challenging oneself in a marathon. On her journey to selfhood, Alice finds “disaster after ecological disaster. . . tyranny served by minions” (A Grin Before the Cat Appears, p. 6). She “gets caught up/in a royally wicked game” (First a Grin, Then a Cat, Then Being Told which Way Depends on Where You Want to Go.,” p. 8–by the way, I love Rozga’s titles!)and exclaims, “What time is this, what times are these,/rude, rough, incomprehensible” (“Awake,” p. 16). Finally, though, she “wakes up/and embraces running” (“Grounding,” p. 17), realizing that she must stop running away from and start to ”[run] her own race” (“Alice Runs Again,” p. 20). And waking up involves not only running but also writing poetry. Peggy/Alice the poet laments, “I’m wasting time, stuck in a rabbit hole of prose” (“Running,“ p. 13) of both her life and her voice.
I’ve focused my review on the Alice poems because, quite frankly, I like them best: I like the way Rozga uses the Alice in Wonderland story to tell HER story. But I’ve also focused on those poems because the poems in the second part of the book, “The Last Six Miles Are the Hardest,” will be mostly familiar to Rozga readers. Rozga takes us to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the struggle for fair housing in Milwaukee, and in this section, too, she writes of growing self discovery and strength.
Seeing her long-time neighborhood in a new way, she is daunted by “a wave of hate,” asking “How had I walked these streets for years/and never seen the ugly?” (“Peggy: Crossing the 16th Street Viaduct,” p. 54-5). But she finally concludes “Hey, y’all. We DID it! We did IT!/WE did it!” (“Toward an Epilogue,” p. 65). It’s the WE that’s important here.
After these political poems, the book’s third section, “Even in Beauty,” which mixes older poems with some newer ones, touches on Rozga’s various selves as poet, gardener, and grandmother as well as poet and activist. My favorite poem in this section is “Cake and Lemonade for Neighbors,” a poem first published in 2018, which beautifully depicts Rozga’s vision of a peaceful multi-racial society:
a comfortable place to sit
on the unscreened
wide or narrow porch
or on the stoop. Some-
times just enjoy all
Black, Brown, White
golden quiet together (p.91)
Ultimately, Rozga tells us, poetry and social activism are the same, and their goal is inclusion:
Poems. Rallies. Poem rallies. Poems
protest closed doors, welcome the lonely,
look out, invite in. Sing solo but invite
chorus. Word a way out: I to we,
my to our. (“Ars Poetica,” p. 96)
In the concluding section of the book, “Holding My Selves Together,” fear and anger are the subjects of several more recent poems, but overall, Rozga’s message is hope, “the absolute refusal to be unseen” (“Risk Awe,” p. 138):
now for the fruit,
and rain on the radishes (“Hope Is the Thing That Flies,” p. 139).
Rozga is a poet who always has her eye on the radishes. And that’s just as it should be.
Judy is a retired professor of English at the UW Colleges, now living in far northwestern Wisconsin. Some of her poems have appeared in periodicals such as Rattle, The Lyric, and Jewish Women’s Literary Annual.