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I first read Peter Mishler’s book of poetry, Fludde, in manuscript in 2015, and it called up my small secret memories: cubby holes at school, the feeling of a field under foot, the smell of well water, the length of a certain flight of stairs, a flood of emotions remembered from childhood. Mishler evokes these with seeming effortlessness. His writing remains elegant and empathic throughout. “Kiss all babies and persons of interest,” he says.
The title, Fludde, originates in “Noye’s Fludde,” the one-act opera for amateur players by the British composer Benjamin Britten. We are told Mishler “performed in this play as a boy,” so, in one sense, Mishler admits the collection is autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical. Reading the poems as texts that deal with memory enhances the reader’s experience; the poems become personal, and they create new imaginative spaces for the subjects to remember in. The school children in Fludde are rehearsing for the play. One of the book’s main highlights is a reflection on the opera’s Kyrie sequence, a long scene during which children dressed as birds and other animals appear in grouped pairs singing “Kyrie Eleison,” or “Lord have mercy on us.” Mishler writes: “Then for an hour on felted risers, / beneath a vaulted ceiling, you’re made to sing the kyrie.” (He actually played an owl in this part of the opera.)
Sounds drive the title poem. Sounds of “undressing,” song, Britten’s Kyrie, “lost behind / the beverage machines.” Britten intended his work to be performed by amateur players, particularly children. And so it is fitting that Mishler makes his “Fludde” a retrospective poem that sees childhood from an adult perspective. The light with “its gradient pull” is in the past. The speaker of the poem spies the schoolyard and turns away, “sparkling” one of the lenses of his glasses, but also a ship’s spy glass. We are on Noah’s ark.
Mishler writes in the aesthetic tradition of later surrealists and the Black Mountain Poets, and particularly Charles Olson, in that he projects the emotional energy of the poem onto the reader. A master of the bon mot, he is totally unconstrained by the limits realism places on writing. We see this in the wholly startling embrace in “Old World,” the first poem in the collection: “My love with her tongue / at the tip of the truncheon. / Me with my tongue / asleep at her hipbone.” The speaker’s weapon is a sex object, his penis. The sounds these words make put the tongue against the teeth. They are charged with energy. When Dean Young selected Fludde for the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, he wrote in his foreword, “I feel something in [the poems] I always trust: the deployment of form, musicality, narrative, and wild association, permitting the reader to see beyond the life of a single poet, and outside our current moment.” Young highlights how Mishler deploys frenetic logic and subtle imagery. In “Mild Invective” for instance, when the speaker spots some deer while shaving in his car beside the Sunoco, the reader gets drawn into a fable-scape alongside the threat of economic collapse. It’s a pastoral scene beside a rotting gas station.
Fludde succeeds when itplumbs childhood, taking the reader through its rites, its anticipation of loss, dreams, love, the initial sting of all these things. Mishler expresses the feeling of growing in these poems so clearly, and so vividly, that it becomes emotional. It hurts to succumb to memory’s unheralded quiet in the title poem, and in “Noye” – two pieces that speak to biblical/mythical archetypes. In “Noye,” while a swimmer clings to an oar, the speaker recalls glowering before entering a murderous day dream, “I lift my simple, / dust-covered cinder block / over my head, / then let it fall, / then pull the body up.” This implies a loss of innocence that was never actually there.
Fludde is, to borrow Young’s description, “a companion for our dream life.” Drink it in. Mishler fills any glass with words and knows every twist of phrase. The embossed end pages and carpet cover of Sarabande’s edition are gorgeous too.
Tomorrow, Thursday, August 15, is Grist’s free submission day! Please send us your fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Our typical submission fee will be waived so you can submit free of charge.
Please find our submission guidelines here: https://gristjournal.com/submissions/. We hope to see your work soon!
As 2019 began, I found myself looking to books from last year to better understand how to live. How do we understand ourselves in real time, in the moment, as we make decisions that will affect the facts of our lives, as we connect ourselves with myths, metaphors, and symbols that are important to us? In asking this question, I’ve found myself thinking of three poets in particular which I hope you return to as well.
Leah Umansky’s second full-length collection, The Barbarous Century, is set firmly in twenty-first century America, tracing our collective consciousness (from Twitter to politics to television shows) from a singular woman’s perspective. Split into three sections, the collection begins in a position of uncertainty about the narrator’s self in relation to others and the world she inhabits. In one poem she writes, “Here, coordinate my sprawling,” and in the next “To what edge can we cling? // This has affected me. / This pause is alive.” The speaker’s uncertain positioning brings with it a desire to understand the past and one’s relationship to it, to understand the present as if from the future, with clear-eyed hindsight.
The uncertain relationships set up in the first section engender Umansky’s turn to the second, one primarily concerned with looking through the “eyes” of two culturally significant legends in order for the narrator to gain a renewed sense of self-determination: Game of Thrones and Mad Men. By imagining points of view through these show’s characters and imagined worlds, the narrator gains new character strengths for her own story, as Umansky accomplishes in her Khaleesi poems, for one example. In “Khaleesi Says,” the narrator states:
In this story, fear is a house gone dry.
Fear is not being a woman.
I am no ordinary woman, she says,
My dreams come true.
and she says and she is
and I say, yes, give me that.
After the gaining of new strength in the second section, the third returns to self, and a rediscovery that hard-fought and often-fractured love connects the individual to human relationships and the present.
The narrator of The Barbarous Century attempts several ways to construct a habitable world for herself so she can live into a happy, full, and open-ended future. She attempts to see and be seen by those around her, to understand the myths and legends of the past and of today. In the end, she simultaneously needs to find new ways to approach reality head-on and find side ways out of reality to rest, recuperate, and reexamine, before returning. By the end of the book, I came to see a real strength in showing these internal negotiations with the self before, during, and after seeing the self’s different iterations reflected in contemporary cultural legends, as it allows the book’s readers to see those negotations happen in real time. After all, as Umansky writes in “Heart,” “This self is all I’ve got.”
Alicia Mountain’s debut full-length collection High Ground Coward establishes a singular aesthetic world in the West, stretching from California to Montana and Idaho: declarative while simultaneously distanced and speculative, desiring of a specific lover yet self-questioning and expansive in its depiction of each “you,” extremely attentive to each character’s lived differences and yet sometimes seeing double (“I can’t meet anyone new. // Two men named Mackenzie, / Lita with the eyes and posture / of someone cruel from college”). Mountain’s book, in one continuous section from beginning to end, follows various themes as they rise and fall, allowing space for people and concerns to dissipate, recur, be questioned, and shift. Throughout, the speaker shows a vested interest in “spread[ing] arms to say just this.” The courage to do so comes through one’s relationships with others and an understanding that metaphor can be both a method of self-understanding and a way to hide. This multiplicity embeds Mountain’s book with a large-hearted and imaginatively rich sense of possibility and inclusion that remains suffused with a sense of loss.
Reading this book, I sensed a kinship with Mountain’s narrator: that at the times in my life like the ones that produced her narrator’s seeking for non-metaphor, for stating the fact and not the symbol, I too am not sure how to tell the difference between oasis and mirage, between hunger and recovery, between desire and contentment. In those times, I am both comforted and afraid to realize, alongside Mountain, the urgency in those very real tensions and the desire to know them by describing them in metaphoric language: “I know we’ve got animals in us like a house on fire. / They smell the smoke and they’re digging at the doorframe.” The world of metaphor remains important while we recognize its limits: an avalanche can kill, be the least poetic of images, and still be an emotion, experienced or awaiting each of us in different measure. Mountain’s narrator tells us to be at peace as we ask ourselves how we desire symbols to understand life at a distance and want desperately the lived, physical experience of the surface of our thoughts and bodies. We attempt in each way to be not entirely separate from ourselves, even when the “you” of our individual life stories ruptures, breaks, avalanches, or returns.
Like Umansky and Mountain, Carly Joy Miller takes up the same concerns about negotiating life as one lives it in her debut full-length collection, Ceremonial. Differently from Umansky and Mountain, however, Miller’s narrators directly take up the symbolic heft of rivers, drowning, what it means to be animal, what it means to know one’s own body, and transform them into new shapes. As she writes in “Lost Girl Wails Swan Song,” “Trust in this: / wings sprouted from my shoulder blades. / I glide on water.” Each poem creates a kind of ceremony, a structure for the reader to see and speak through that shifts their way of relating to their living. Most often, Miller begins this shifting by a concrete, lived instance of tension or by questioning in romantic relationship, that then opens up into a newly changed connection with forms of belief such as faith or prayer, or understanding of self as a woman and as a human. Throughout this book’s three sections, Miller’s narrators contemplate and change their relationships with wildness inside themselves, a relationship always somehow a bit out of reach. As she writes in “Anti-Pioneer”: “This is where the wild fluttered out / as soon as I staked the land as mine.”
Yet, even with the ungraspable quality of questions Miller’s poems ask, her ceremonies helped me think more clearly about how the language I speak, hear, read, and write all remains in kinship with my body, my past, and my imagination. The best I can put it is to show another example from her poem “Letter to Body Made of Breath”:
All that labor.
I’ve made a myth of it.
my knees. Breathe:
body arch. Breathe:
body flutter. Breathe:
we linger. At the end
of anything, a lift.
Believe or leave
Jeremy Michael Reed holds a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee, where he was the editor-in-chief of Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts and assistant to Joy Harjo. His poems and essays are published or forthcoming in Still: The Journal, Western Humanities Review, Zone 3, and elsewhere, including the anthology Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene. He is an associate editor of Sundress Publications and an assistant professor of English at Westminster College in Fulton, MO.
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.