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Month: February 2015

Grief as Celebration & Grief as Beauty: Reading Michalle Gould’s Resurrection Party

 

Michalle Gould_Resurrection PartyWe all have such differing definitions and expectations of grief. When asked to define grief, love, beauty, we often begin to play a game of word association, or we resort to metaphors and personification. Pain and sorrow. My heart hurts. It’s like a well that never fills up.

But when I think about grief… my mind becomes a conflicted torrent of the difficult and the mundane, the ugly and the beautiful. Why, you may ask? Shouldn’t grief be a non-gray construct?

No, it shouldn’t.

Because grief is achieved through memories; we are overwhelmed with grief when someone dies, because we loved them. We hurt, because we remember mistakes and regrets, happiness and love. In a way, grief, after a time, becomes a celebration. (That’s why grief is given stages.) We aren’t meant to live in sadness forever. We should hurt, but we should also remember, and in that we can often find solace.

Michalle Gould combats this disjunction of celebration through poems that have been a long time coming. In over ten years’ worth of work, Gould establishes what it can mean to grieve, and even why we grieve, while similarly associating with love, death and relationships. These seem, on the surface, to be such broad, winding concepts—and they certainly can be—but they are so interconnected with grief in these poems that they become entirely necessary to grief’s existence: without something to cherish, there would be nothing to miss. And this concept is so unthinkable and perfectly complicated through Gould’s use of imagistic language and metaphor, traditionalist qualities and hints of religion. There is so much to love about these poems and their truthful nature… these are just a few points I’d love to discuss.

These poems are largely unparalleled in their beauty and ability to transform an image. Not only does Gould do wonderful work in selecting words well, but the images that are generated through them, and the abstractions, are astounding. This is fitting, too, because of the complexity of the over-arching concepts: a complicated concept is due a complicated writerly method to mirror it and to lend insight to the page. Constantly, I continue to return to Gould’s poem, “When I Was Naked,” which I feel performs such a thorough transformation of ideas through image:

 

WHEN I WAS NAKED

I was the sturdy bowl of plums half-buried in snow
outside the artist’s studio. He paints the shades of purple
reflected in condensed water on my skin.

I was the snowy hill topped by a nun’s black habit,
a fall of dark hair descending to wintry shoulders,
an infinite stretch of icy skin.

My body was a mystery. The anatomist
touched his scalpel to the edge of my jaw,
opened his sketchpad and drew back my skin.

The courtesan in Osaka tried something new, trimmed away leaves,
stem, floated me—denuded lily—in a stone bowl full of milk.
A day later, the bowl was scattered petals on a blue-white skin.

A vine is a humble creeping thing, but clustered in boastful fruit.
We called to the artist, “I am emerald! I am amethyst!”
until some wild animal left us naked, eating only our skin.

In a cemetery, a mole tunneled back and forth between the graves,
extended blind fingers, knew before any scientist,
the last to go is hair. The first is skin.

 

This poem has continued to be one of my favorites of Gould’s, first for the first, third and fourth stanzas, but also for the transformation of the narrator’s physicality, as well as the transformation of skin, as separate entities. While we see the narrator transform through abstractions, which might suggest physical maturation, and the length, vulnerability and mortality of our skin, which reminds me not only of the entirety of our mortality, but the constantly looming possibility of a life ending and grief repeating.

As if this transformation of images and ideas were not enough—throughout many poems in the collection, mind you—there is also the integration of elements of the tradition, as well as religion or the sublime. While we may view the poems that are imitating traditional forms, or traditional language, as ghost-forms or “influence poems,” these elements invite traditionalist language in a way that invites thoughts of immortality on the page—and a continued conversation between published writers. By employing a particular form—even only a ghost-form, or certain sentiments of a form—it calls back to those writers who regularly employed these forms, and often employed them well. This speaks, too, to the presence of religion or the sublime in a poem, the constant reaching out to the supernatural or immortal, which may take us back to those poets who performed this same search, such as Keats. So as a sort of meta-commentary, then, in a series of poems that are already focusing on grief as a process, we may not only reach the point of celebrating those we’ve lost, but we may also celebrate previous writers by employing their forms or engaging with similar topics.

Michalle Gould has done something wonderful here by way of grief: she has reminded us of the stages involved in the grieving process, and how that can eventually lead to a time of celebration—both, with our loved ones, and with our best-loved writers. In exploring and employing the transformation of language, image and idea, we are constantly on our tiptoes, considering how one image can become the next—such as a sturdy bowl of plums to a snowy hill—as well as the use and adaptation of forms, these poems are lovely explorations of change. This is a collection that I can easily read multiple times, always be surprised, and find something new that I loved… and I highly recommend that you try out the same journey.

 

MICHALLE GOULD recently moved to Hollywood to work as a librarian, after living in Central Texas for several years. Her first full-length collection of poetry, Resurrection Party, was published in August 2014 by Silver Birch Press, a small independent press located in Los Angeles. Poems from the collection have been published in Poetry, Slate, New England Review, American Literary Review and other journals. Another poem is in the process of being developed into a short film. In addition, her writing has been published in The Texas Observer, online in McSweeney’s, and in many other journals. She also writes fiction and is currently researching and writing a novel set in the north of English in the 1930’s.

 

 

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Remembering Herbert Scott

 

SLEEPING WOMAN

                    —after the painting by Richard Diebenkorn

 

I’m walking east down Lovell in Kalamazoo
in the middle of the afternoon, and it’s hot, July
something, and there’s a man sleeping on the sidewalk—
the way you would in your bed—his body a kind of Z
in a fancy serif font, the curlicue of hands
beneath his head at the top, and the toes of each foot
curved to comfort the other, at the bottom. At first
I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, his skin
the color of burnt iron, a darkness alcohol finally brings.
I remember him from months before, a couple of blocks
west of here. He leaned against my car and wanted
to borrow money, a loan. He wanted a ride to South Haven
where he could get the money to pay me back.
His voice had that desperate familiarity that says:
You know me. You must want to care for me.
I think I gave him something, not much, and drove away.
I couldn’t forget his face, murky with solitude,
like the hard red clay in Oklahoma where I grew up
that won’t grow anything—everything lost to erosion
that brings such desolation you can’t survive.
I thought he wouldn’t survive more than a week or so,
but here he is, and when the cops arrive they know him,
call him Billy, and he’s still alive, maybe
for the last time, and they pick him up.
I head east again, turn left into the cool museum
where I lose myself, sometimes, where I find you
sleeping where I’ve seen you before, paint streaming
around you like water, gathering in the shallows
of your dress. I am always surprised to see you.
I don’t know. Are you flesh, or water? if I move
you will disappear in a startle of color.
The gallery is almost dark—those new-fangled spots
that keep the viewer anonymous—but your face turns
toward me from the crook of your doubled arms,
all about you an unemcumbered sway, an intelligence
of light explicit as a summer evening. Deer quietly chewing.
I balance, in the shadows, between.

 

Herb Scott_The Other Life Selected Poems of Herbert Scott_David Dodd LeeThat is easily my favorite Herb Scott poem; it is the one, when asked, or when I think of him, that I turn to. My first exposure to him was through The Other Life: Selected Poems of Herbert Scott, edited by David Dodd Lee. I devoured this book upon its purchase, and read it again and again, before entering the MFA program at Western Michigan University. Since attending WMU, and volunteering and working at New Issues Poetry and Prose, I have realized the impact one poet can have on a literary community: the friendships, the press, the poetry, sharing the word; he was one of the hinges on which everything ran. I never met him, but my praise for New Issues is never-ending, and his poetry continues to startle me. He challenges me as a poet, and as a member in this community; it’s a gift I wish for all other poets, all other writers, as long as there are literary communities.

Herb, today would have been your 84th birthday. It’ll never be enough, but I like to think turning to your work, raising a glass of white wine, and thinking about what I can do in the literary communities I touch to make them better, I’ll be able to do a fraction of what you’ve done, and continue to do.

Happy Birthday, and happy memories. Cheers.

 

 

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Tomorrow!! At the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts!!

 

Art Hop Second Sight Insight IIEveryone! Wonderful news: I have plans for you for your Friday night!

As a part of the Greater Kalamazoo Art Hop, the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts will be hosting a reading for their art exhibit, Second Sight/Insight II, which is in its second year of ekphrastic pairings.

Back in October, poets were encouraged to submit their work for consideration to be a part of this exhibit; and upon selection, they were paired with a local artist’s piece, which they then needed to create a poem from by the beginning of November. The Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts now houses the fruits of their labors (myself included), pairing on the walls the original artists’ works with the poets’ literary renderings (like the one shown above with artist Jay Seeley and poet Marion Boyer!).

Friday evening, from 6:00pm-7:00pm, some of these poets will read their poems from the exhibit and offer a few thoughts about their ekphrastic process. I will hopefully be there to read my poem, “For My Doppelgänger,” and to talk about its pairing with Flo Hatcher’s A Box with a Sky Window. Needless to say, I am extremely excited!

Hope to see you all there! It’s a really wonderful and beautiful exhibit!

 

 

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The Two (or More?) Sides of Friendship: Reading Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar

 

Rufi Thorpe_The Girls from Corona del Mar We all have to grow up someday. And some of us are dealt a better hand than others—some during our childhood, others later in life, and even others not at all. But we find a way to persist, to perceive the world and how to function within its barriers. We learn how to love, to grow—and sometimes, more interestingly, we learn how to watch. Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar is so completely about childhood friends growing up and growing apart, but it’s also about what some would perceive as luck (or luck running out) and the strange, voyeuristic qualities of our friendships tend to take on—particularly in those moments of attempting to “catch up,” that thrill—when friendships become distant, or even estranged.

And as if these concepts weren’t complicated enough, Thorpe offers such beautiful, raw and emotional renderings that we (or at least I) lost touch with that boundary between narrative and reality. I cared for, and felt for, screamed at, rooted for and cried for, these characters more deeply than I often do for a story’s personalities. Because it’s more than that—a story; it’s more of a piece of historical fiction, really, telling truths about each of us with different names and slightly different situations. And yet it’s a story we’ve never heard before; we hurt for these characters, and we are surprised when they fall, and it feels perfectly natural and reasonable to want to catch them. This is a novel that envelops us and continues to hold on long after the last page.

Perhaps what makes all of this so arresting is the disjunctive nature of their relationship; while Mia and Lorrie Ann grew up together in the small, seemingly-disadvantaged place of Corona del Mar, their memories are still tinged with nostalgic sunlight, their tanned skin and sun-kissed hair; there’s beauty, and a certain perfection, in those memories. And yet when these two young women have grown up, and come into situations where they truly need each other emotionally, they are often physically separated by great distances—and, at times, even greater apathy towards one another. While these two women were friends through and through, and always sought one another one for help (and to check in), there is a certain amount of perceived dislike, almost an obligatory forcing-together of their lives, contained in their relationship, as well. Unfortunately, though, this is fitting and regrettably true for many of us: we often maintain some of those relationships that are the most toxic for us because they’ve been established the longest, or we simply lose interest (again, because of the time that’s passed) and yet try (and fail) to maintain in touch, often out of obligation. Weirdly, though, there’s a certain amount of purity to this obligation—after all, that feeling of responsibility isn’t often forced by the other party, but rather the desire to maintain that which was once treasured. It’s interesting to think about how these emotions often played into not only Mia and Lorrie Ann’s decisions to see one another, but often how they treated or viewed one another (and their troubles or successes).

But Rufi Thorpe doesn’t stop here—not even close. Much of this relationship, and its complications, are explored through consequences (both positive and negative) of our choices, and how those consequences can bring us to a new mental and physical state: becoming a mother, moving from the United States to Istanbul… these are two central occurrences in the book, but they are hardly exhaustive. And Mia and Lorrie Ann’s reactions to one another’s life events, often dark and judgmental, dismissive or cold, put a mirror to the core of their relationship, and often how broken it can be after their departure from Corona del Mar. What makes this even more stark is the initial glorification applied to Lorrie Ann, her life and her family, by the ever-watching Mia, who continues to watch with concern, and even a certain amount of fascination, as her friend’s life continues to change.

My praise for this story, its complexities, and its characters, are endless. The story Rufi Thorpe has offered up provides all the twists and turns to keep you up and night, and then some. It’s taken me a great deal of time to process the book after finishing it, to process what I can even intellectually say about it, and (perhaps most importantly) to be able to move on to my next read without taking these characters with me and projecting them onto the new characters! This book is quite the experience. Slow yourself down a little bit, take a deep breath, and dive in. It isn’t an easy trip, but really, it shouldn’t be; honest and raw stories tend to pull you in several directions, run your emotions dry, and get you thinking about the truth behind the theme most thoroughly explored in the story (in this case, friendship, I’d say). And that is exactly the sort of trip you’ll go on with The Girls from Corona del Mar. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it. I promise.

 

RUFI THORPE received her MFA from the University of Virginia in 2009. Her novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, was published by Knopf July 2014. A native of California, she currently lives in Washington D.C., with her husband and son.

 

 

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