I just wrote up a piece for a literary magazineâ€™s Contributorsâ€™ Blog, and in it I described what I look for in poems: â€œI admire the poet who keeps a gleam in his rolled eye. I like a poet to look to her gut but not her navel; I like subject matter to be tough but not gratuitous or looking to shock. And I want lovely music in every poem I read, no matter how unlovely the subject.â€
Soon after, I cracked Stevie Edwardsâ€™ new book. Well, I might as well have written â€œSee Good Griefâ€ after the line above.
To achieve this requires expert handling of most of the tools in a poetâ€™s toolbox, so letâ€™s take a look. Hereâ€™s the last stanza of the first poem in the book, â€œFor my Brother on his Sixteenth Birthdayâ€:
Â He tells me heâ€™s cold. I press my lighter
to his sleeves and tell him itâ€™ll be
okay, hug him until weâ€™re both charred
and warm. He tells me itâ€™s gone.
Violence and tenderness do a waltz with tells, tell, tell as the beat, press and hug and warm the spaces between, and the smell of charring flesh permeates the air. Tough, but not gratuitousâ€”a recognition of the feelings someone has simply as a function of living and loving here on this planet in this moment. I believe the speaker; I believe the violence, the tenderness, and both together.
In â€œSunday Morning Pastoral,â€ Edwards writes that the speaker â€œdidn’tÂ know exactly what to do about how low the remains of the moon hung through the night.â€ What a perfect way to express that feeling of smallness and of awe: What is a person next to that? she seems to be asking. For that matter, what is a person next to a field of mammals â€œwithout vocabularies for guilt,â€ devoid of self-consciousness and ego? Why do we matter? A lot of the poems in Good Grief mine that question, and itâ€™s ever so worthy a task.
A corollary to that question is, Why take ourselves so seriously? Edwards deftly explores that. In â€œThe Hippie Church I Was Raised in Doesnâ€™t Believe in Sin,â€ for instance, we have another case of not knowing what to do; in this case, the speaker doesnâ€™t â€œknow what to do when [her] body becomes/furniture,â€ morphing from a shelf to a medicine cabinet to Planned Parenthood receipts.Â Absurd, but that makes the pathos that much greater when she finally declares,
Â the police would find me,
a naked doormat welcoming drunks
to the subway entrance, or they wouldnâ€™t, which is
exactly what loneliness means.
Whatâ€™s worse than being a doormat? Being a doormat no one uses. But as wretched as that sounds, Edwards doesnâ€™t whineâ€”sheâ€™s got that balance, that gaze at the gut rather than the navel.
Security knocks against fragility in the poems. In â€œCaesura,â€ a speaker next to her sleeping lover lets her mind go. She ends the poem with,
Â Maybe I need to be still enough
to hear what wakes in her
and pounce on its neck, make it
screech, skin it alive if I have to.
Thereâ€™s the lovely language employed in the service of unlovely content, a finely rendered, true moment that once again marries violence and tenderness.
My favorite poem in the collection is â€œHow I Came to be Built Without a Doorway.â€ Â Itâ€™s a masterpiece of balanceâ€”no overstatement, no understatement, deeply moving without being at all syrupy, a â€œjust rightâ€ worthy of Goldilocks. It begins:
Â If a woman is a house, a shelter,
Mom must be only scaffoldingâ€”
so thin, her skin can barely
contain her bones.
Like poems throughout Good Grief (perhaps most notably â€œWhat I Can Say Iâ€™ve Left, What Iâ€™ve Mournedâ€), this poem reflects an ambivalence towards life, the notion that we might not belong here and that to feel we do is a kind of hubrisâ€”or at least misguided. The mother figure here is hypnotized into remembering her birth, eventually repeating, â€œIâ€™m crying. Nobody/will hold me.â€ The poem ends,
And it will never be enough
to scrape her body off the floor
and tell her sheâ€™s loved.
I had a physical reaction, the nodding and head-shaking and eye-closing and deep breaths that come when I read a wonderful poem. I made a lot of those motions as I read this collection, and I was grateful for its tackling of lifeâ€™s sadness and uncertainty. Edwards has chosen to look that in the face and to use writing to press against it, even if she canâ€™t shove it out of sight. â€œAt the end of the body/is a skittering toward the warm,/soft center of grief,â€ she writes. â€œI am nearly gone.â€
Gretchen Primackâ€™s poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, FIELD, Antioch Review, Ploughshares, and other journals. Her chapbook, The Slow Creaking of Planets, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2007. An animal activist, she co-wrote the newly released memoir The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals (Penguin Avery 2012) with Jenny Brown, director of the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. Â www.gretchenprimack.com.