Saturday, August 4, 2012

My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets: Debra Allbery

Debra Allbery is, technically, not a Pittsburgh poet. As far as I know she's never lived in Pittsburgh. She does appear, however, in The Pittsburgh Book of Contemporary American Poetry, a terrific anthology edited by Ed Ochester and Peter Oresick. And even though she was born in Lancaster, Ohio, she did teach for a time at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, so calling her a Pittsburgh poet is not totally out of place.

Allbery's poems creep up on you with their deceptively simple strategies of straightforward narrative and camouflaged diction that blends into the poem's context until, in their final stanzas or lines, they pounce, flashing powerful muscles, present all along, knocking you off your feet. "Carnies" is one such poem:


That's what we went for, Holly and I,
not for the rides or the games we couldn't win.
What were we then, fourteen, fifteen,
wearing cutoffs and our brothers' workshirts.
Holly tossing her hair as we walked down the midway,
her talking big and me saying nothing, a half step
behind her. But don't you know how deep summer
crawls inside you in a town like that.
You can't keep still, you need fast
fresh air from another place. And if boys
your own age try showing off for you there,
you nod and shrug but keep glancing away.
You look over at the quick swipes of grease
on the jeans of some muscled roustabout unlocking
the safety bars on the Octopus, you watch
the flutter of his T-shirt, the travel of his eyes.
And when he looks at your you're caught
not knowing what to do, and afraid to smile.
You just move on through that broken-down music.
Holly and I, we took our time getting on
and off those rides, we craved that coolness
just an extra second airborne, scrambling
summer and Main Street and a stranger's level gaze.
And you bet we'd take them home with us,
their soft goddamns that followed us out,
and wouldn't we toss all night with them, too.

Debra Allbery has won two NEA fellowships, a Sherwood Anderson Fellowship, the "Discovery" Nation Prize and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. Her books are Walking Distance (1991) and Fimbul-Winter (2010). Ms. Allbery is the Director of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, where she has been on the poetry faculty since 1983. She lives in Fairview, North Carolina.

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