Friday, January 6, 2012

Poetry Review: "Oh dont," Kelle Groom

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Kelle Groom offers a lovely--and potent--meditation on the capacity of images to prompt echoes in one's thoughts.

The poem "Oh dont," by Kelle Groom, originally appeared in Witness XXII (2009). It is also featured in her collection Five Kingdoms, as well as in The Best American Poetry 2010, edited by Amy Gerstler and David Lehman.

The poem's language emerges from impressions of handwriting and pictures. The thoughts these spark go from meditations on the image to meditations on memories, climaxing with an remembrance of loss. There is also the attendant frustration that one perhaps could have done more. It’s a demanding read. Groom trusts the reader to intuit the connections between the images and the narrator’s reflections upon them.

The poem begins with the text of a photograph’s title plate, “—Albumen silver print attributed to F. M. Parkes & Reeves," which would seem to set the stage as clearly as an establishing shot in a movie. But it’s simply the starting point for a series of associations. That text is written in an odd script that suggests a ghost’s hand, which in turn suggests a paradox: handwriting written without hands. This is followed by the contemplation of a ghost’s point of view, trying to respond to the people death has cost it. A note in ethereal handwriting is all it can muster. It’s a moving reversal of perspective, reminding the reader that the grief of loss may not be restricted to one’s thoughts: the one lost, even the dead, grieves, too.

Groom then transforms her contemplation of loss from both sides of life’s divide. It becomes a reunion between the narrator and a lover who has passed away. The narrator thinks back on the totems of the romance--her lover’s guitar, his songs, his trusting her with knowledge of a place holding a most personal memory--and suddenly her lover is with her again. She realizes her thoughts are folly. The recognition is eloquently expressed with the metaphor “the woman in me still driving by.” But on a certain level the narrator doesn’t care. Her mind is entranced with another trope, that common but always lovely symbol of love’s happiness: the dance. But her feelings of loss reassert themselves. Presence becomes absence, and she reminds herself “no one was dancing.”

The narrator, though, can’t turn from the loss, and the most painful aspects of it are then recounted. The reader is first confronted with nearly inscrutable details from her memory: “cement to my thigh,” climbing stairs, and breathing that takes in the burning. The narrator shifts attention to other images. The first is even more inscrutable than the memory flashes. (Groom’s remarks in The Best American Poetry 2010 indicate it is a description of Marc Chagall’s 1914 painting The Lovers (Vision). Click here. The poem might be stronger if this had been made more explicit.) The memories then reassert themselves, first with pleas of “Oh don’t keep coming?/Oh don’t stop?,” and then further associations are sparked by the ghostly writing on other photographs. The words “la porte ferme” become la porte fume. The narrator is then plunged back into the memory of which there were previously only glimmers. Groom brilliantly suggests what happened through metonymies: the “cement to my thigh”; a door that is closed; a door that is smoke; breaths while climbing the stairs that take in the burning. One realizes the lover died in a fire while the narrator was trapped on the stairwell outside. The reader is left contemplating how the pain of loss can sneak up and overcome one. Even more disturbingly, one is left with the knowledge that pain can manifest itself through guilt: the poem ends with the narrator admonishing herself for not doing more, “…even/a blind girl can see that’s smoke.”

The poem makes a startling progression. It begins with musings on the nature of a piece handwriting, and builds through associations to the pain and guilt from helplessness. Groom dramatizes the power of metonymy: associations invariably bring one face to face with oneself and one’s experiences, and one may not always like what one sees. What’s even more poignant is that those associations can make one feel the pain of responsibility even when it’s misplaced. Memories carry both joy and sorrow, and even the most random and irrelevant sight can make those feelings come rushing back. One can’t run away. When associations start appearing, they often don't end.

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