“Stay” by Kathleen McGookey

Stay_cover_smDeath and life have long been tied together in literature, a reflection of our shared experience. One of the strongest connections between the two is grief when life transfers into death and love takes on the lens of loss. All these elements emerge strongly in Kathleen McGookey’s stunning book of poems, Stay. From the loss of children not yet born, to the loss of parents long lived, McGookey struggles to retain what is lost and to accept what is left.
McGookey writes prose poems, allowing her the freedom to develop her thoughts while using the fragmentation of poetry to create lines of depth. In “Shallow” she describes a living moon. “She is pinned to the sky, unapproachable: to be aloof, to be cold and disinterested and not afraid if anyone knows is a decent strategy.” McGookey clearly does not emulate these traits, and so her poems reach out to the reader.
We listen as McGookey interprets life through the decision of becoming a mother, and then the mother who does not conceive.  In “Again” she opens with: “Never conceived, never arrived into the light and the clatter and the chill. Never rapt, like a statue. Never arrived for the slap…” She is grieving the loss of the life never created with the same intensity we grieve the loss of those who die. In both situations, we are left with an absence. One carries memories and the other possibilities, but neither are tangible no matter how much they are experienced.

She is continually struck by the grief and horror an individual can experience that does

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Kathleen McGookey

not impact the world. How life seems to go on all around you as your own life falls apart. In “Like Stars” she describes an awe-inspiring evening setting full of the life of insects and birds, and ends with the line: “Right now my friend is having a baby boy who is expected to die.”  In “Sometimes the Ache Sleeps” we see her facing her parent’s declining health, “But each day the purple morning glories bloomed after the sun rose, and each day promised to be just like the one before.” At times, the poet seems to be torn between the thankfulness for ongoing life and being stunned that all the world does not understand your grief. But grief, while universally experienced, is a private affair.

The title poem expresses a theme found throughout these poems. The longing to hang on to what we had while having what is changing. She wants to stay with her ailing mom, who sends her up to her husband. But they only trade places so the husband cares for her mother while she nurses her child. We have a desire to keep what we have, yet we want what we do not have. You cannot care for your dying mother and your young son at the same time. We desire change and we desire to stay in our place.
Clearly, this collection is full of much pain. But she does not lose herself in the pain. She acknowledges it, struggles with it, but still recognizes the beauty around her. She seems in awe of life, wanting to experience it from a distance but finding herself an active part of it. When no hope seems left, she finds it in a note from her mother, the unconditional love of her child, or in the vision of a teenage boy with one leg water skiing and looking for girls in bikinis.

At the Edge of Forget by Reka Jellema, Brendan Bonsack, Kathryn Ross, and Jennifer Savage

at the edge of forgetThis unique volume of poetry tears down the stereotype of the solitary poet locked in a room, as the entire volume is the collaboration of four poets. It is not an anthology of their individual work, but a collection of collaborative poetry created across continents. Two of the writers, Reka Jellema and Jennifer Savage, live in different areas of the United States. Brendan Bonsack and Kathryn Ross are both from Australia. Together, they break the collection into three areas, “Resonance,” “Weaving,” and “Remberance.” And although it does not impact the contents, it is worth noting that the book cover photo and design are outstanding (and the work of two of the writers).

If you are skeptical about the concept, you will not be after reading the collection. This collaborative collection creates a strong, deep voice where the writers clearly listened to one another’s writing and enhanced their individual voices. To use their own titles, the ideas of resonance and weaving are what make these poems work, whie the poems of rememberance remind us of the connection with others of our mortality.

They seem to touch on their connection with one another in their opening poem, “We Met Before.”

“I have met you before
I can tell by the flurry of words

Spoken, not spoken
Assembled like confetti
Blown from my lips, flecked in my hair
A swarm of tiny letters
The sayable puzzles, and the unsayable

Were we meant to fit together,
And this blinking, squinting, mutter-mutter know?

When I met you before
Our time was runing low”

Throughout the collection, we see a range of themes and find both serious and winsome words. In the midst of a poem entitled “Canine,” we get an accurate look at dogs, but with a seriousness which can only make us smile:

“…
We licked
our spots, divined
A crotch
From miles off

Unleashing
With each nudge of snout
Scents by the millions
Stars exploding
Pungent edge of lawns, uprooted
Trees, and variegated clumps
Of weeds

Our nostrils quivered
And our tails shot up
…”

Whether exploring marriage (“A Love’s Little Scratching”), objects (“Ceiling”), or grief (“Ways to Say Goodbye”), the writers combine to create a unique voice, a new way of looking at life. A poem like “Wednesdays” could be written by one person, but the different voices in creating these snapshots add a depth to the voice. We see this again in “Men of Bicycle” as different views take us past the visual into a realm of wondering.

This collection offers us a new way to approach writing. While many have talked about collaborative writing in our digital age, this volume shows it not only working but presenting a new voice. It is exciting to think how the addition of a new person, or the replacement of one writer, could affect how these writers work together. Perhaps the four voices behind it make you feel like there is a conversation happening and you are invited to join in. Pull up a chair. You will be better for it.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

citizen coverI’ve read this fifth volume of Rankine’s poetry three times, and each time I learn more about what I do not know. Rankine exposes the everyday incidents of personal racism, the public racism of how Serena Williams is treated throughout her career, and the violent racism revealed in the deaths of unarmed black men. But the adjectives of “personal,” “public,” and “violent,” are mere artifacts. What Rankine is showing is that all racism is personal, public, and violent. As she, and the rest of the world, watch Williams be the object of blatantly erroneous calls, it is personal for her. And it is violent in how it attacks her very humanity. The deaths of unarmed black men, the “unintentional” racist comments of her white, liberal, and educated friends, and the public shaming of someone responding honestly to being harassed live beyond the moment.

The book itself is a scrapbook of poetry, creative prose, quotes, verbal collages, and visual art. She almost seems to be scrambling, desperately, for a way to get her message across. At times, she hits it over and over, as she experiences it over and over.

“Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted,

Author_Photo_of_Claudia_Rankine

Claudia Rankine

would call you by the name of her black housekeeper?  You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.” These are the daily reminders of the racism inherent in our society but only experienced by those who are not white.

 

Ranking divides her book into several sections, including ones focusing on her daily encounters with racism, one on the treatment of Williams, and one focusing on headline events such as the killings of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson. In addressing so many forms of racism, Rankine requires a response (and, of course, not to respond is to respond). If you want to feel good about the U.S. (and the world) and race, don’t read this book. If, like me, racism is not something personally experience, this book will give you some insight to the pervasiveness and horrendous impact of racism.

Visit Claudia Rankine’s Website

See a Video of Rankine Reading from Citizen

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

91-a-David-GolderThis novel by Nemirovsky, published in 1929, is a stark description of greed and its outcome. It offers little hope and is even more powerful as a result. Nemirovsky shows us David Golder, a self-made businessman who has risen from a from humble beginnings by being intelligent, focused, and ruthless. Now, in his late 60s, his own poor health makes him look at his equally greedy wife and selfish 18-year-old daughter with new eyes. The book opens with Golder showing no mercy to his lifelong business partner, now bankrupt, who then goes and kills himself. Golder returns later to his own home (he often lives in other cities) and is confronted with his greedy wife and her demands for money. She lives to impress others, even changing her name so that her Jewish background is hidden. His daughter is a spoiled child who spends time traveling with young men. Golder is completely under his daughter’s spell, even though he sees her for what she is, and she ultimately brings about his demise.

Recovering from a heart attack, Golder lets his business deals fall apart and intentionally drives himself to ruin. Only his daughter can convince him to make one last deal so she can have more money, and it becomes his final deal.

There is almost nothing redeeming in any of the characters, although you can see that Golder is at least torn by what he has become. He pines for the simpler life, but is beyond finding a way to return to it. On the brink of the depression, her story shows the individual dangers of wealth and greed. Her refusal to offer any hope forces the reader to address the desolate message, still relevant today. [Note: The novel was made into a film of the same name in 1931].

This was Nemirovsky’s debut novel, and she received strong critical acclaim for it. She

irene nemirovsky

Nemirovsky

went on to write several other novels, before being sent to Auschwitz and being killed in 1942 — she was 39. It should be noted that Nemirovsky, herself of Jewish origin, has been described as a “self-hating Jew” by some critics. Of a Russian-Jewish background, she spent most of her time in France. Her husband was also Jewish (and also died in Auschwitz), but she converted to Catholicism in 1939. She creates an interesting dilemma to study, and her writing shows the study will be worth the effort.

 

“A Boy’s Will” by Robert Frost

A_Boy's_Will_1915This is Frost’s first book of poems, published in 1913, and it set him on the path that we are all familiar with. What surprised me is that this was published when Frost was 38 years old — and he still accomplished so much after this book. The poems reflect Frost’s interest in the rural landscape, the individuality of a person, and ruminations on our place in the world. Like many good writers, Frost is easy to read, but also not content with an unexamined life. He avoids the pretentiousness of many writers and

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Robert Frost, 1913

 

manages to say more in the process. When poets become popular (e.g. Mary Oliver), some people tend to see them as superficial. Instead, they are often strong poets who have found a way to connect their art with the public. Frost did this.

“Mowing” and “Reluctance” are two of the better-known poems hers. There are many recordings of Frost’s own straightforward style of reading. Here is a recording of him reading “Mowing.”

Personally, I returned several times to:

“Storm Fear”

When the wind works against us in the dark,
And pelts with snow
The lower chamber window on the east,
And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,
The beast,
‘Come out! Come out!’–
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
Ah, no!
I count our strength,
Two and a child,
Those of us not asleep subdued to mark
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,–
How drifts are piled,
Dooryard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away,
And my heart owns a doubt
Whether ’tis in us to arise with day
And save ourselves unaided.