The Grief Performance
Cleveland State University Poetry Center | $15.95 | 72 pages | paper
The terms of the world in Emily Kendal Frey’s full-length collection, The Grief Performance, are contingent. Late in the book, Frey writes, “A play is only the set / of actors available / that day.” Thus, the variations on a grief performance offered in this book may not be the only variations that exist—they depend, as so much does, on what one has read, whom one has known, how one feels, whether one has seen “elves, backyard pit barbeque, lilacs” on a particular day. The world requires tentative denotation and exploration, wary approach, and, finally, bold rapprochement.
The first section of The Grief Performance catalogues the speaker’s defenses against the world’s seemingly shifting specifications. Frey defines. As can be seen in “Beach,” whose last lines provide the book’s title:
Glass is sand.
Hearts are cards.
We flip like fish. And settle in
for the grief performance.
She also seeks out light; in “The March” light provides a necessary exit, while in “Your First Bed,” light appears as an offering: “Here, body inside my body. / Here’s a night-blooming cereus, // light attached.” Beauty appears in other surprising places, as in “Falun Dafa”:
There is no
I am eating
a small bad
pizza and I am
not going to stop
but your faces
on the highway
The speaker initially resists the “peace” that might be found in such spiritual movements as Falun Dafa. Instead, she seeks consolation in “a small bad // pizza.” But, unexpectedly, she repeats what she has heard from a Falun Dafa practitioner. Here, Frey’s short lines, which often slow readers down into realizing permutations of image, an ever-shifting field, enact juxtaposition (peace/pizza, pizza/faces, loosened dirt/paved highways) and revelation (the final opening onto possibility, an inhale, “into me”).
The first section of The Grief Performance concludes with six poems entitled “The End,” each of which might be considered a script for a particular grief performance. The volume suggests that there are many ways to deal with loss. Perhaps the most striking is the third poem in this sequence:
I put tomatoes
in the corner
as red builds
I take the bleeding
Here, the violence done to the speaker in a previous poem is appropriated. But the speaker acts on the tomatoes, rather than the implicit addressee, who has, in the last poem, provided a moment of lush and antagonistic relief for the then-acquiescent speaker:
Oh the soft
to burn me in.
This violence might be preferable to the passivity of the first poem in the sequence, where the speaker and the addressee “stare / at the TV” with dead faces and “love becomes // a blue thing.” From passivity and anger, the sequence turns to acceptance, as “My mother / and her dead // sister” invite the speaker to “walk // closer / toward the light // that is them.” Elsewhere, Frey presents a still from these grief performances: “my dead / mouth // open / no bird.” And though the performance may be winding down, there is no easy resolution to be found:
The speaker is managing to cope, in some healthy way, as she acknowledges the difficulty of the process.
In the book’s second section, Frey slows time, via set-pieces that offer a kind of consolatory stasis. The speaker approaches particulars of the external world: lovers, trains, rivers, birds. “Love Letter” ends with this image: “They wait together, at the head of the line, each of them holding a particular / weight, carrying something. They feel it move in their hands.” This heft offers a promise, that a tandem burden might reduce the load for both parties. A similar sense of fragile possibility suffuses “The Train Dreams It Is Flying,” in which speed, figured as a train “rush[ing] headlong / into whiteness,” is reduced to “An outline. A broken branch.” In “Birds Are So Soft,” the speaker continues to rediscover the soft, slow pleasures of life among the living. She enthusiastically instructs readers on how to touch a bird’s body. We may not have known what we were missing—a necessary recovery, similar to the one at the end of “Falun Dafa”: “You’ll have a whole new set of sounds / you can make with your mouth.”
The last poem of this section, “The History of Knives,” is formally different from any other in the book. A prose block that fills the entire page, the poem is a synthesis that simultaneously undoes itself. Observe these shuttlings:
When I met you we were the shape of salt shakers…. Your first home was a house on stilts with butter dishes. I slept in the shape of what you told me about your house. I met you and we became pigeons under the rafters and held on hard. We became barnacle-shaped butter dishes…. I was sleeping in your first bed with a butter dish, softening in the late spring…. You think I will lie down in the grass but you are someone who eats butter under the slats.
Here, we find not only salt shakers and butter dishes (which contain substances capable of imposing transformation—salt—or transforming—butter), but also houses, beds, lakes, ashtrays, and boots. The speaker’s concern with containers culminates in the final sentence: “There are three dead people in me.” The speaker herself has become a vessel, not so much the sum of those experiences depicted over the course of the poem but the implication or vibration of “three dead people” earlier presented: “I could stab the walls of your house. I could bleed on your house and my dad would bleed…. You want to get to my neck and I’m a subway station filled with knives.” Whatever violence the speaker has known eclipses the poem’s more encouraging images: “the buds lined up,” “the sun hitting my jaw,” “vintage ashtrays decorated in roses.”
Thus, it is no surprise that a restless energy pervades, in the book’s final section, a 29-part poem entitled “A Meditation on a Meditation of Frost.” An accompanying note, that the poem “models its form after and responds entirely to ‘A Meditation on Frost’ by SRS,” provides no hint as to whether “frost” is the poet Frost or solid water vapor or a period of cold weather or, even, in the British denotation, a failure. Thematically, the last two make clear sense. Aphorisms offer little in the way of guidance or comfort; how, for instance, might the speaker productively change her life if she knows the following?
Today is the anniversary
of every other day. Insofar as
no one knows
After all, another poem tells us, earthily,
Good advice is misused almost as often
you’ve got a grip
but you can’t get at
the hot orange mess.
Yet, there are moments of clear-eyed humor: “The other half / of the sentence lost inside / your other manuscript.” All poets seem to have, or know others with, a manuscript seeking a publisher.
The speaker in this last section is resolutely hard-edged and tough, but not without hope. The same person who stands ready for “Death,” her “most / insincere opponent,” “with fists of sand” also waits “for the tiny dot / of your boat on the horizon. / An act of magic.” In the end, though, there is no magic; there is only the “big black shiny deep.” Gone is the vulnerability figured earlier in “Hasp”:
In the sun
my hips I was
Why did you leave
The speaker announces, matter-of-factly, in the book’s final poem, “We’re being / made love to, don’t you see? / Bend over that bench.” Ultimately, The Grief Performance refuses transcendence for the real-world pucker of “lemons, lemons, lemons.”