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19 August 2009

IN MEMORIAM: Deborah Digges, the tragic passing of a poet, a classmate

Just walked home from Bikram class, and while noticing the slowing of crickets’ chirps and the earlier setting of the sun, felt some melancholy over the end of summer and a birthday around the corner--the last of my 40s.

At home, I settled in with my new New Yorker, which had arrived earlier today, the 24 August issue. From time to time, I know a writer whose work is publishing in the prestigious magazine.

I noticed Deborah Digges' name in the table of contents. I went immediately to her poem. Deborah and I were in a class together at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop in 1983. The professor had invited me to join the class, a graduate poetry class, though I was still an undergraduate. I was young, shy, awestruck and intimidated by the talent of the other poets in the class.

Glittering shadows

Especially Deborah. There were only a few women in the class of about a dozen poets. I picture her as a petite, pretty, brunette woman with apple cheeks and a bright smile. I picture her wearing white blouses and blue jeans and black boots. She could write like an angel. Even her comments in class, I remember, were like poetry. One day, I remember, she was talking about a post-modern poem and she said, “Even the shadows glitter.” That line stuck in my head all these years. At the time she was involved with the poet Stanley Plumley--a handsome, bearded, swaggering rogue poet teaching in the Writer’s Workshop. I admired them. Deborah and I were never friends--just acquaintances. Classmates.

I’d seen Deborah’s byline in the New Yorker before, and I’d read her prose in other magazines, as well. I always felt a twinge of writer’s envy, yes, but also a surge of pride in having known her. I was pleased for her to be enjoying the honor of seeing her work in what I consider the most best-written magazine in our nation. I knew in the Workshop that she was great, but I had not really followed her career.

Gleaming laurels

But to have poems published in The New Yorker? I knew she'd reached someplace lofty. I'm not a poetry expert, but I understood the gleam of that laurel. To make it in our day as a poet is almost impossible. To make it as a woman poet? You do the math.

As I read Deborah’s freshly published poem, titled “The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart,” I pictured her as I knew her. If Deborah had been a songbird, perhaps a swallow. In fact, the title of her first book of poetry was "Vesper Swallows." Holding The New Yorker at my ready-for-bifocals distance, I read and heard her voice. The lines of the luminous yet troubled poem drew me in, mesmerized me. “How does she do it?” I asked myself, working through the poem to the last lines, disturbing.

And then, even more disturbing, I saw below her name in parentheses (1950-2009).

Deborah died? I had not heard. I turned to the contributors' page that carries a brief biography of the writers and saw that Deborah had passed over in April. She was only ten years older than I. Breast cancer? I wondered. Ovarian cancer?

But when I Googled her name, I learned that she was a suicide. Evidently, she had jumped from the top tier of a stadium.

She jumped?

The whys are unbearable.

I like to think of her spirit ascending, even as her body fell.

The obituaries revealed that Deborah had published four books of poetry, two memoirs, landed impressive grants, won coveted prizes. I learned that she and Stanley had married and divorced. That her maiden name was Sugarbaker, and that she was raised on an apple orchard in Missouri, one of 10 children. That she loved animals, volunteered at a shelter. That she also traveled with some frequency to Africa to volunteer, helping children there. That a forthcoming book of poems, "Dance of the Seven Veils" was scheduled to be published this fall, and that she also was writing a historical novel.

Even her shadows glittered.
Link
Here is a link to Deborah Digges’ obituary in The New York Times. And a list on Amazon of books she's written.

On his website, Edward Byrne, an English pr
ofessor at Valparaiso University and editor of Valparaiso Poetry Review, posted three lines from Digges's poem "Broom."

"Once I asked myself, when was I happy?
I was looking at a February sky.
When did the light hold me and I didn't struggle?"

And here's a link to yesterday morning's Denver Flower and Gardening entry on writers in the garden, posted about seven hours before I'd learned of Deborah's decision. The entry even includes a poem and encourages readers to read it aloud.
I trust Deborah, who at the time of her death was teaching classes on creative writing and "The Architecture of the Imagination" at Tufts, would approve.

I wonder whether Deborah had a garden. I wonder when last she'd stared at the ocean.


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