All There Is to Keep
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PRAISE FOR All There Is to Keep
Like pieces in a mosaic, the hard-won poems of Riddle’s All There is to Keep create a narrative that transcends its fragments. They give us the history of a place and family through the wisdom of one who had the gumption to back out of bad luck and start over.
—George Ella Lyon,
One is first struck by the variety here — in form (sonnet to lyric to narrative to monologue) and in content. Although Appalachia serves as the locus for many of the poems, the author is not limited to that geography. In fact Rita Sizemore Riddle attempts to show “what’s under us, all of it, whatever it is.” There is more than “just a whiff of grief” in what is under us, but one is bolstered by the poet’s tough-mindedness:
Everything I have loved
Perhaps the gift of poetry is what sustains the author. “Make believe cannot be eaten,” she notes, but it “never fails to leave me full.” In one poem she describes a paring knife that grows thinner each year. That knife is “pointed as a poem.” And poems in All There is to Keep are indeed pointed — in shape and meaning. “Running Out of Thread” presents the poet as a spider that seems to lose the stuff of creation, unlike Rita Sizemore Riddle who retained the powers that bring brilliance to these pages.
All There is to Keep is a refusal of everyday amnesias and the unlived life to which they give rise. Riddle looks straight at unspeakable loss, teaching us to let go without forgetting. She takes us into famine, into shadows filled with fists, into “ground-glass alleys” in our bare feet. But in the next breath, she also offers up joy, “all I have that’ll keep” — “Running water / on my wrists. // A bowl of roses, / lapful of boy.” She paints the fine line between love and grief and dances on it with scarred feet, so that we also can learn the dance.
Rita Sizemore Riddle’s poems draw us in. Images place us in her past, both distant and near. In “My Mother Never Shuddered,” two images compete: that of the Sunday chicken draining on the clothesline and that of the mother standing at the same line to hang the Monday wash. The evocative contrast between blood and light makes us savor Riddle’s poems. Her dichotomies are simultaneously subtle and striking, noisy and soft. Rita Riddle seems to have a sixth sense, a gut instinct that allows her to see around corners, through sentimental memories, past hardship, and through the folly of human frailties.
All There is to Keep by Shakespearean scholar and teacher Rita Sizemore Riddle is utterly astonishing not only for its story of enduring and prevailing but also for its accompanying wisdom. It is the story of all of us, whether from Appalachia or afar, if we’re really honest as Riddle invariably is in poem after poem in this remarkable collection. She makes no effort to satiate our lust to be lied to. Like the blade of a knife, each poem quickly gets to the human condition from a deeply personal perspective, often with wrenching irony and low-keyed humor. The persona is vitally connected to everything, to family, friends, to the cities and outside world, and to the earth itself. The lesson echoed is a hard one. With connections comes love but also loss — indeed each is a measure of the other. One approach to living is the denial of death, but Riddle has chosen another kind of life, to face loss and to give it shape, form, and meaning through verse, through love. The stanza in her poem, “It’s Time to Take Our Shoes Off,” sums up the prevailing theme and tone:
While the rain falls around us