Book Review of Through This Door: Wisconsin in Poems

When I was in graduate school, we talked a lot about doors. It wasn’t just that the door to our classroom was a heavy, hurricane-proof curmudgeon (that brutalist, open-air, concrete building was a really strange behemoth). We talked often about how a poem or story could “open up many doors.” In other words, a piece of creative writing can cause the reader to think about a multitude of topics at once. Every story, every poem is its own encyclopedia.

One of my professors would often use the phrase, “going through the smallest door,” which meant, I think, that a literary detail—a tangerine, a child-size cowboy hat, a crumpled map—represents a threshold that can lead into an entire world.

When two of my other mentors back in Wisconsin, Margaret Rozga and Angela Trudell Vasquez (Peggy and Angie, for many of us who know them!) recently released a poetry anthology called Through This Door: Wisconsin in Poems (Art Night Books, 2020), I was curious about where the contributors would take the potent theme symbol because, as a writer and reader, I know that a door can lead just about anywhere.

Their idea for the collection is rooted in Rozga’s work in the Milwaukee fair housing movement in the 1960s. As the current Poet Laureate of Wisconsin, Rozga encouraged writers during her travels around the state to consider whether a door that had been closed in the ’60s was now, in any way, open. Metaphoric and literal: the doors of a house or apartment, the doors of discrimination or justice.

Eventually, Trudell Vasquez, who serves as the Poet Laureate of Madison and also has a personal history of social activism and poet-activism, joined Rozga as co-editor.

Doors are the organizing principle in this anthology. The poems are divided into four sections, the titular “Through This Door,” and “Fresh Knowledge,” “In the Quiet,” and “Each Sunrise.” So, even from the section headings, we know that we’ll be dealing with movement and metaphor.

During this time of social distancing, the idea of the door as a way of maintaining safety is especially relevant. Cathryn Cofell writes in “Getting Home,” “just here between two front doors closed tight/the one I locked and the one that never does/because it has to open…” Destinny Fletcher writes in “From a Door Worth Opening,” “Woman be a powerhouse/A light bulb during a blizzard storm.” This year when we are safer at home, we attempt to keep each other healthy by being that light bulb.

The anthology also contains metaphysical renderings of doors into the mind, doors hewn from thin air. Reggie Finlayson recognizes text itself as a door, juxtaposing this with a close encounter with a bear in “I to Eye.” Max Garland shares a moment of ecstatic awareness in “Joy” when “Just to know how it felt I stood under the red pine./It was 10 below and the sun was not quite up/and the moon was not quite down, and the air so cold…”

The section, “3: A Rectangle,” of Vida Cross’s three-sectioned poem subversively titled “2 Doors” instructs readers to, “Draw 2 lines that are horizontal//Connect 2 lines that are vertical on each end//Trap something in the middle.” Yes! Wooden door, paper door, door of ink. A drawn line is the smallest door of all.

Many of the poets also drew my attention through repurposing door-based idioms. Portia Cobb writes, “Sensing his restlessness—I/take him out of doors.” Pointing out the existence of doors even in our place-names, Bruce Dethelefsen contributes a poem titled “October Clouds of Door County.” Karen Middleton’s title slides into her first line in “Quit Running In And Out—” which begins, “you’re letting the flies in. And don’t let the door slam.” Jim Landwehr writes in “After Greta Thunberg,” “Our house is on fire so I try to smother it…”

In a recent interview I did with the New York-based poet Deborah Paradez, Paradez used the term “aesthetics of partiality” which simply means acknowledging how the story you tell is not the entire story. I would posit that Rozga and Trudell Vasquez, knowing their joint editorial history, also have an aesthetics of partiality. While this is an anthology of Wisconsin poets, it does not claim to be the definitive anthology. It’s simply one mixtape.

When I ordered the book, I thought that I would know many of the poets in it, having performed and lived as a poet in Wisconsin myself. And I did find many friends there. But, when I knocked on the book’s gorgeous front door (designed by Wendy Vardaman), I was surprised at how many wonderful Wisconsin poets I hadn’t met or even heard of, which just goes to show how useful it is to keep the aesthetics of partiality in mind.

Through This Door is the first time that poetry from all the Wisconsin poets laureate has been gathered in a single volume. I’ve come to think of the role of a poet laureate as a kind of community organizer. Trudell Vasquez and Rozga have done that here. Organizing work is always righteous and never done.

Readers can order Through This Door: Wisconsin in Poems through the Art Night Books website.

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