By Nancy Koerbel
In the middle of my life I can
look down time’s tunnel and find her,
but I can’t grab her by the hair
and shake her free from the desk where she works
or writes in her secret journal
when she should be working,
or gazes at the lake “striated like the muscles
on a man’s back.” She is newly married,
still wonders at sex,
there is no way for me to save her.
She wants poetry and “ordinary human happiness”
and is still young enough to believe
she can have both at once.
—from “Finding My Twenty-Year-Old Chicago Diary” in Talking to Strangers
I chose this stanza to introduce the poet Patricia Dobler because it so deftly reveals the fragments and desires and secret glances that comprise the poetry of a grown woman – a characterization I could not get out of my head while writing about her work.
Pat was 47 when her first book, Talking to Strangers, was chosen by Maxine Kumin for the 1986 Brittingham Prize and published by the University of Wisconsin Press; but, as Jean Valentine put it in her introduction to Pat’s Collected Poems, “You feel … that she didn’t really start late: from the start here was her fierce honesty and her complete craft, as well as what Lynn Emanuel has called her understated sophistication.”
Born Patricia Averdick on June 18, 1939, Pat grew up in Middletown, Ohio, the daughter of a steelworker, and died far too young at her home in Pittsburgh on July 24, 2004. She was married to the writer Bruce Dobler for many years, until they divorced later in life. Bruce’s career took them all over the United States—Chicago, Iowa, Alaska, Texas, and Vermont—before settling in Pittsburgh, where Pat began writing in earnest and earned her MFA at Pitt.
I met Pat when I came to Pitt in 1984. She was one of my teachers, and, of course, part of the vibrant Pittsburgh literary scene of that time. She was, as the poet John Repp remembered her: “good-hearted yet with a spine of steel; patient; serious but far from somber about writing and reading; wryly funny.”
It’s accurate, but insufficient, to consider Pat Dobler as a working-class poet. Her poems surely reflect this—they include mills, and slow sludge-filled rivers, and even tipping cows. Still, in the first book Maxine Kumin had already noted “glimmerings of new directions,” concluding “surely there will be more experimentation, more evidence of travel in the next book.”
And there was more evidence of travel and experimentation in Pat’s second book UXB: Poems and Translations, which included her translations of the Austrian Jewish poet Ilse Aichinger and was published by Mill Hunk Press in 1991. Here’s a good example of a translation from UXB that reflects Pat’s skill and wit.
“Timely Advice” (Aichinger)
First of all
you must believe
that day will come
when the sun rises.
But if you do not believe it,
you must believe
and with all your might
that night will come
when the moon rises.
But if you do not believe it,
or nod your head submissively,
they’ll buy that too.
—from UXB: Poems and Translations in Collected Poems
Since I could not interview Pat, I gathered some thoughts and comments about her and her work from friends, fellow poets, colleagues, and students. Pat is beloved here in Pittsburgh, and remembered well, not only for her poetry, but for her kindness and good humor, and especially for the considerable and wide-ranging legacy she left behind at Carlow University. What Pat accomplished in her time at Carlow is a testament to her hard work and devotion to her craft, but also to her abiding generosity, especially to other women. In response to my query about Pat’s work at Carlow, Jan Beatty, Director of Creative Writing and Director of Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow, wrote:
Patricia Dobler created a lasting and honored legacy at Carlow University. She was the primary architect of the international Carlow MFA Program, now thriving and in its sixteenth year.
She grew the Madwomen in the Attic program at Carlow to be a visible, necessary program for women writers, ages 18-95. Now we have more than 350 madwomen from across the country. As a teacher, Pat was unforgettable in her depth of knowledge of literature and writing, yet it was her gracious spirit and commitment to the lives of women that shone through every writing workshop.
In the halls of Carlow University, you will see pictures of Pat Dobler. She is there to advise us and to lead us still. The Patricia Dobler Award, a national award for a poem by a woman over 40 who has not yet published a book, has grown in scope and popularity.
As a result of the work and vision of Patricia Dobler, the Madwomen publish an annual print anthology with a poem of Pat’s beginning every issue, a national reading series, a mentorship program for new writers, the local reading series MadFridays, and a small press, MadBooks, which publishes the writing of women.
Pat Dobler is revered and remembered on a daily basis at Carlow: she is the one in the fuchsia dress in the photo in Aquinas 108, where the Madwomen meet.
The Collected Poems was published posthumously by Autumn House Press in 2005. It includes her first two books, and a final 50-page manuscript, Now. She shared poems and friendship with the poets Lynn Emanuel, Judith Vollmer, and Maggie Anderson. Comments from each appear below.
From Lynn Emanuel:
Among Pat Dobler’s great influences were Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, Sappho, and the Austrian poet, Ilse Aichinger, whom Pat translated when she traveled to Germany. Towards the end of her life, she, Judith Vollmer, and I would meet in Pat’s living room to read and–because Pat knew some German–to translate Rilke, particularly the Duino Elegies. In 2002, just a few years before her death, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship took her to Naples. I still have a postcard of “The Tomb of the Diver” from Paestum. It shows a naked diver poised in the air forever, half-way between a diving tower and the ocean. He is smiling and beautifully perfect in his form. I’ve come to think of this as a metaphor for Pat’s vision of a hereafter.
I want to believe in this. The diver
wears only his archaic smile.
Balance, order, and proportion
rule. Death is put in his place …
—from “Mother and the Diver” in Collected Poems
I always thought it was wildly inaccurate that Pat’s primary identity was that of a working class poet. As Maggie Anderson has said, Pat “moved away from the mortal…toward the immortal and spiritual; some of the last poems seem almost to have been written from the afterlife. Her Collected Poems … begins with a quotation from Milosz: ‘This body so fragile and woundable,/ Which will remain when words abandon us.’ In fact Pat’s body did abandon her, but words did not. She had the shortest life of any of us. And she was the best of us.
I confess that I hadn’t read Pat’s work in many years, and was taken completely off guard while reading Now. The poems are masterful: clear, precise, and surprising. She died at the height of her work.
From Judith Vollmer:
The late poems are uncanny: without veering from the precision and heat-lightning of her earlier, more narrative work, Pat moved into an intense lyric poetry. I remember she was experimenting with both perfect and improvised Sapphics. She was also constantly reading her beloved Milosz. Pat died July 24, 2004. Milosz died August 14. That gave me some strange old Polish consolation, an affinity for Eastern European—what—call it mythmaking or spirit—that Pat and I shared.
You can see what Vollmer is talking about in this poem from Now.
She said: When leaves turn yellow in the high mountains, we sit in the woods for the elk. You go where they are and sit. You don’t chase them or kill them when they are in a rut, you don’t hunt them at all or you risk spoiling the meat. And you shoot them once, into the body. Bear hunting is different, since you’re not after the meat. But you must not think Bear. Or Bear will know and you will become the hunted.
—from Now, in Collected Poems
My favorite anecdote about Pat came from the writer Kristin Kovacic, who shared the story of a night she and her husband (the poet Jim Daniels) were out with Pat and Bruce, walking the streets of Troy Hill, an old German neighborhood on the north side of Pittsburgh. They came upon one of the big old Catholic churches, Saint Anthony’s, and, as Kovacic tells it, it was a quintessential Pittsburgh scene:
…little row houses, and that was Patty’s kind of thing, the ordinarily beautiful, and she cooed over all that—she had a way of expressing delight that was genuine and infectious—and then we drifted toward a lit building, which was the church hall where they were having a Bingo, and we went in and sat down like we were a part of the neighborhood, and Patty felt right at home—I think Catholic Bingo was in her DNA, and we played Bingo, and it was thrilling because Patty was so thrilled (also, Bingo is fun) and didn’t Patty win something, a purse, I think. It was a magical night, and though Bruce made the occasion, it was Patty who drew the magic out of it because she loved the ordinary world so hard.
Pat Dobler did love the ordinary world, in all of its mystery and sorrow and wonder.
“Love and Work”
Six or eight swallows dip to the pond’s
green glass, skimming for midges
which rise to meet them: the swallows
double in the calm surface like an eddy of leaves
caught by the wind in a pattern that looks like art
but isn’t. Just a beautiful accident
of clear water and embroidering birds,
but when love and work combine, there is
no difference. I had a friend
whose life moved like these birds, and if ever
he entertained one fake notion about himself, or art,
love or work, I never knew it. As everything floats away,
the swallow’s liquid calls upborne over the pond,
I remember his soft chant: So be it, so be it.
Nancy Koerbel teaches professional and legal writing at the University of Pittsburgh, holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and coordinates the Pittsburgh location of the national literary reading series Why There Are Words (WTAW). Her poems have appeared most recently in One, Redactions, and The Pittsburgh Poetry Review.