Death 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
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.