Nineteen Letters by Kathleen McGookey, Batcat Press, April 2019, Hardcover, 45 pages, $24.00
With the publication of her latest chapbook, Nineteen Letters, Kathleen McGookey continues her playful and inventive interest in mortality, especially as it relates to the experience of parenting. This collection of epistolary prose poems addressed to death is an expansion on several poems within her full length 2017 collection Heart in a Jar. McGookey’s work brought to mind Lauren Elkin’s piece “Why all the books about motherhood?” at the Paris Review, whichtook note of a recent books such as Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts: “What’s different about this new crop of books about motherhood is their unerring seriousness, their ambition, the way they demand that the experience of motherhood in all its viscera be taken seriously as literature.” As a parent myself, it’s thrilling to follow McGookey’s trajectory and feel that my own fears and seemingly mundane experiences as a parent are being fleshed out and taken seriously.
Published by Batcat Press, which is the nation’s only press run completely by high school students, Nineteen Letters establishes much of its verve from exploring the tension between whimsical childish experiences and the stalking indifference of death. Batcat explains that the design for Nineteen Letters is inspired by a traditional children’s books and features a letterpressed cover and multi-colored pages. In “Death, here’s the gingerbread house,” the speaker assumes an innocent yet sardonic tone as she invites Death into a gingerbread house on her mantel. Suddenly a fanciful object is wicked in McGookey’s brilliant lines: “I like to think of you / contained in the snug and spicy dark. The doors and windows / are just imprinted in the dough.” And the speaker concludes with hope of trapping and entertaining death: “Why not stay where I can keep an eye on you? You / can eat until you ache.”
McGookey’s nineteen letters to death stay interesting because the speaker’s tone shifts unpredictably. In “Death, now where’s a skinny stray,” the speaker promises her children that there is hope that they will rescue a stray, yet plaintively admits to Death, “I know truth is precarious. And / here you’ve sent a curtain of rain for the cat to hide behind. In / winter, I imagined she would starve and freeze.”
McGookey not only navigates the difficult terrain of explaining death to children, but also seems to explore the alienation adults may feel in child-focused occasions in another poem. Surprisingly, McGookey does so by assuming the point of view of Death, who the speaker helps navigate the arbitrary social rules of a classroom party, such as, “Cupcakes go next to the juiceboxes.” The sardonic tone continues in the closing lines: “…Its ok if you don’t exactly fit in….”
Perhaps the most refreshing part of the book is that McGookey isn’t afraid to approach death with compassion. One poem begins with the empathetic line, “When you have been away for weeks I start to feel / tenderly toward you, and imagine you got stuck with the job / when you were a girl with a laugh like running water.”
Here, death has his own inner life, and this mirrors the closing of another poem, which pulls us back to a presumably pre-parent self, who once spent hours with an air mail letter, “my back against a warm stone wall.” In the same way that death had its own carefree laugh in his youth, the speaker remembers her own freedom in a bracing closing line: “Years ago…I was in Italy. My story was private then. I / thought you’d never find me.”
With McGookey’s signature wit and bravery, Nineteen Letters offers parents and nonparents a thrilling, unpredictable ride with one of today’s masters of prose poetry.
Kathleen McGookey‘s book Instructions for My Imposter was published by Press 53, and her chapbook Nineteen Letters was published by Batcat Press. Her work has appeared in Copper Nickel, Crazyhorse, december, Field, Glassworks, Miramar, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Quiddity, and Sweet.
Natalie Tomlin’s recent poetry and nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in Split Rock Review, Canary, Dunes Review, J Journal, The Hopper, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. Her work was selected as notable in The Best American Essays 2018. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband and son.