I got to hear Kim-An Lieberman read her own work once, at Arundel Books way back in 2009. If you could tune out the sales clerks' never-ending rants about how President Obama was going to destroy the country, Arundel was a beautiful bookshop, and their reading setup was unlike any other in Seattle: The author would stand on the second-floor mezzanine and read down to the audience below. Lieberman read poetry from her first published collection, Breaking the Map, and we all stood on the main floor of the bookstore and gawked up at her like she was royalty.
The highlight of the reading was her poem "Wings," about a woman whose husband grows a pair of wings. At first, she can't believe he takes this miracle for granted—"He complained about their aching weight, how they poked holes in his favorite sweater/and sometimes, of their own accord, began to flap and pull his feet from the ground"—but then she grows jealous when he accepts his newfound beauty: "Even fully clothed he leaked gallons of light." The reading of "Wings" on that night was an extraordinary moment, and we all knew it: All we could do was look up and wonder at the poem, and the person who brought the poem into the world.
Earlier this month, Kathleen Flenniken, the former Washington State poet laureate, stood behind a podium at Jack Straw Gallery and read "Wings" to a room full of people. It was a wonderful interpretation—Flenniken clearly understood the poem down to its bones—but the room didn't respond with the ecstasy that the reading deserved. The circumstances were just too sad.
Kim-An Lieberman passed away on December 8, 2013, after a long battle with gastric cancer. She was a mother, a teacher, and one of the best poets in Seattle. She was only 39. Everything about that story is heartbreaking—it's a container of heartbreak, filled with hundreds of little heartbreaks, including the fact that Lieberman didn't live long enough to see the release of her new poetry collection, In Orbit. That first rainy Sunday in May, Lieberman's friends and family and colleagues gathered to celebrate the book's release by honoring her memory and reading her work to each other.
At the beginning of the reading, Terry Martin, the editor of Breaking the Map and In Orbit, emphasized that she and Lieberman worked closely on the new book; in fact, Lieberman signed off on the final proofs two weeks before she died. The only part of In Orbit that wasn't written and approved by Lieberman, Martin said, is the sentence mentioning her death at the end of the bio on the back cover. Martin asked the crowd, "Has editing ever been so sad?" Instead of nodding a response, we sat quietly in our rows of chairs, looking down at the carpet, trying to figure out what to do with our hands.
It may have been sad work, but it was worth it: In Orbit is every bit as great a collection of poetry as Breaking the Map was. The two slender books, together on a shelf, complement each other like identical twins wearing clashing dresses. Breaking the Map is a daring red; In Orbit is a dusky gray-blue. Both books are about Lieberman's past, her present, her Vietnamese heritage, and her boundless imagination. The poems in both books share Lieberman's voice, which sounds, in certain moments, like a willful, modernized Emily Dickinson.
The poems of In Orbit are written by someone who is aware that time is chasing her down. The first poem, "Double Helix," imagines DNA as a "roulette wheel, numbers blurred/spinning wild," a game where winning and losing are arbitrary. She casts her mind back to the past, imagining what it was like to watch the Vietnam War solely on television, how strangely personal ("How are you, war?/What's the damage today?") and uninformative ("Can't spot a scar/through this peephole of glass") that experience could be.
One of the most prominent themes in Lieberman's work was the making of choices, and the path not taken. Many of her poems are poised on the cusp of a decision, and many others try to wander back to see where the other set of footprints might have led. While Breaking the Map was more interested in plumbing the depths of regret, In Orbit sees Lieberman actively grabbing hold of the arc of time, trying to bend it back on itself to make things right again in an "automatic cosmic do-over," where you get to choose "a messier outfit, a sexier car."
"In Which I Rewrite History to Include My Grandfather" first tries to imagine the years Lieberman's grandfather lost to a prison camp in the Vietnam War—"Those missing years" he might have spent "digging at infinite jungle, shoveling mud into more mud"—and then tries to win those stolen years back. She delivers him to some of the most triumphant moments in history and inserts him into the scene, a time-traveling photobomb:
My grandfather flashing a rascally thumbs-up as a sailor
grabs the nearest nurse's hips and leans in for a victory kiss.
But there are times when history can't be wrestled into submission. The penultimate section of In Orbit documents Lieberman's cancer journey. She knows that this will be an incomplete memoir, but she's still hopeful "because poetry has its limits but then again so does cancer." These are the pages that leave large, indigo bruises on your chest. Lieberman's lively brain captures the poetry in medical talk, the "brash and indifferent god" of diagnosis, and the accidental rhythms of death sentences:
The cancer has spread to both liver and lung
is anapestic tetrameter, first beat omitted.
But though Martin notes that cancer is "inseparable" from this book, it also doesn't dwell on cancer—In Orbit closes on Lieberman's children, with poems that serve as love letters to the future. "Returning to the Children After a Week Away" begins, "Their bodies are so immediate," and the book closes with a child enthralled by moonlight, asking for "more moon." Lieberman knows it's a moment that will wash away with all the rest, but she doesn't care: "Someday she will know light from light—for now, let her world shimmer."
After Breaking the Map came out, I put Lieberman on the shortlist for a Stranger Genius Award in literature. Part of my rationale for shortlisting her, rather than giving her the award outright, was that she was young for a poet, that she'd surely have other, and even better, books of poetry in years to come. And now, that even better book of poetry is here, and I can't track Lieberman down on some balcony after a reading and tell her how much I love it. There will be no more books after this one.
This is a lesson that we all have to learn over and over, but I'll tell it to you anyway, in case you're in particular need of hearing it right now: If you love something that somebody does—some art, some words, some sounds—you tell them that you love it. You tell everyone how much you love it, repeatedly and enthusiastically. Don't save your appreciation for later, or worry about wearing people out with your passion. Because the happy truth is this: If a piece of art truly moves you, you will never, ever run out of new adjectives to express how much you love it. Getting to love someone's art is one of the very finest parts of being alive.