Missing Her is a moving, elegant series of poems, or elegies, that examines loss on both a very public and a private level. Keelan’s topics include Mary after the birth of Jesus, the Vietnam War, September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, and the death of her father. In “About Suffering They Were,” she writes, “There are no old poems, / Only new textbooks directing / The unprepared student to the painting / Behind the poem.” In Missing Her, we are all unprepared students, and Keelan leads us not merely to her poems but to the truths behind poetry.
“Mary Wasn’t Sure” is a prose poem in eight paragraphs. In it, Jesus’ mother is unprepared for the historical role she has to assume: “Mary wasn’t sure about any of it. She didn’t like her traveling cloak and she didn’t like the donkey.” The source of her discontent is her realization of what the future holds: “She didn’t like the story, except the beginning, she didn’t like the way she knew how it was going to end.” The end here is not the glory of the Resurrection, but a mother’s loss: “No, she saw it all, she knew it all already, and so did Jesus in his baby sleep, dreaming himself the dead man his mother would hold forever in her lap.” Keelan, finally, makes the Pieta personal, and thus this becomes the most truly spiritual of poems.
In “Little Elegy (Ground Zero),” Keelan’s references range from Faulkner to Wim Wenders as she ponders the horrific spectacle of 9/11: “A man and woman in business suits, / Choosing their means of dying, / Living to the last in air / Instead of fire.” Instead of the planes crashing into the towers or the Pentagon or the Pennsylvania field, she grasps the most personal of images to convey the horror and wonder of that day: “the fire from the plane’s / Crash so hot, they clasped / Hands and stepped / Off the broken tower.”
The centerpiece of the book, and American Poetry Review’s winner of the 2007 Jerome Shestack prize, is the tour de force, long poem “Everybody’s Autobiography.” Keelan writes,
This is the autobiography of everyone because all lives
and books begin and end.
This is the autobiography of everyone
and is for all of us still alive in the broken middleness,
mouthing our stories.
The poem has eight sections. The overriding subject is the death of the poet’s father, seen most directly in the first part: “In the end, they placed him in a bag, I heard / the zipping and though I didn’t watch, I heard the effort they made lifting, / and he was gone, no sirens, before my son woke.” She pulls back in subsequent sections to recount the historical events of the year of her father’s birth, the monopolization of California by the Southern Pacific Railroad, a chronological “History of the Major Oil Companies in the Gulf Region,” and even 9/11. All of it is tied in with her father’s passing. “This [9/11] has something to do with my father, with oil, with me. / My government and with you.” “Time,” she writes near the end, “is eternal in space. Trapped radio waves prove it, / as does my dead father’s DNA wound through me.”
Missing Her is Keelan’s sixth collection of poems. Parts of it will stay with you long after reading, as with this passage from part three of “Tide Table”:
I am so sorry. I was supposed to look after you. But along the way,
I made some bad decisions and in the end,
Turned you into me.