By David Nilsen
Stay. In Kathleen McGookey’s new prose poetry collection of that title (Press 53) the word has several meanings. In the book’s dealings with grief and the loss of loved ones, the word refers to the one left behind, the one who must remain on this earth, must go on with daily life. As strong emotions are dragged forward across the lived experiences of these poems, the word refers to a property of grief and joy–the capacity of each to linger on even when countered with the other. Finally, the word is a stated wish. The book is a testament to the transience not only of life itself but of stages within it, that no good or bad thing persists unchanged, even when we wish for permanence and rest. Stay the same, these passages whisper. Please, just a little while.
The tone of the book is predominantly melancholy, a state McGookey expresses in Day Beginning with Rain “is not as bad as sadness, is not the heart’s worst color. (page 62)” The book’s main subjects are death and birth, and Part 1 (of 3) of the book is taken up with premonition of these events. It begins innocuously with poems in which the author reflects on the mothering instinct, on not wanting a baby, on maybe possibly wanting a baby. These are immediately followed by one in which we learn the poet’s parents die, events for which no suitable omens were given as warning. Our two themes, birth and death, never leave each other’s side the remainder of the book and are echoed in myriad complementary binaries throughout.
“I am walking when a small patch of overcast sky clears. It is almost evening, and the sun shines on white birds against darker sky. Just then, the insects stop buzzing and their silence feels like presence. The birds reflect the light like stars. Huge bright flocks move their weight across the sky. Right now my friend is having a baby boy who is expected to die.” – Like Stars, page 14
Part 1 concludes with a poem about a possum dead on the road, rotted and swarming with flies. A lovely yellow swallowtail swoops through the cloud of insects, feasting. It lands at the corpse and eats more. Death and decay, feast and vitality.
Part 2 swirls these two themes and glues them together in a whirlpool of emotion. The poet’s parents die, her baby is conceived. The two sides of the coin of mortality–birth and death–are now forever linked for her. Conception cannot help but echo old age, joy cannot help but evoke grief. Her child’s arrival will always dovetail with her parents’ departure. One poem in this section full of strong feeling quietly settles onto the reader, speaking truth amidst the chaos of life and death around it. When Sorrow Arrives begins:
“You will not want to believe this. You must let her in, no matter what she smells of–burning leaves and Murphy’s Oil Soap, our mother’s lavender sachets. Offer her your softest pillow, clean sheets, leek soup. She didn’t break your heart.” – page 24
This poem’s companion piece is found in the book’s final section. In Part 3 the major events that will define much of the poet’s life are over–her parents are gone, her child is born. In Sorrow Came she reflects further on this curious visitor:
“Because she was called. Like the minister, like the undertaker, she speaks softly. When no one else will, she mentions my parents. How my mother loved butterscotch. How my father loved socket sets.” – page 59
It concludes with a question that dances around the book’s title: “When I learn everything about her, will she go?” Will sorrow linger and stay, comforting perhaps just by merit of her constancy, or will she too depart, bring yet another disruptive change, wished for though it might be?
This final section of the book is both the quietest and the most heartbreaking. In the aftermath of grief’s cymbal-clanging we are left with ourselves, left with reflection and memory and hope and regret. There is no longer a question in this section of intentionally linking birth and death–they could not now be parted. Birth Poem (page 39) begins, “Mention mother and I think of birth,” and in Long White Hallway (page 40) she shares the image of pacing back and forth in the hospital waiting for news, pushing her baby in his stroller all the while. In the collection’s title poem (page 43), one of the most poignant in the book, the poet nurses her baby in the night while her husband sits with her ailing mother in another room. We are given this devastating line: “I’ll never know which part of exhaustion came from grief.” In Lament at Bath Time McGookey bathes her baby boy, she sings to him. The poem concludes:
“After I lift you, dripping, to your white towel, you lean your whole just-washed self into my chest. And then stay.
Even this cannot erase my grief. Oh, Charlie, how can I bear it? Someday you’ll feel this ache.” – page 67
The collection’s final poem provides some resolution. The poet reflects on the weather her parents once knew as beautiful, wonders if there is weather where they are but confesses this doesn’t bother her like it once did, and expresses her grief is but a shadow of what it once was. In the poem’s second half she shares the graces of sun and wind that touch her skin, and spies the two halves of a deer freshly butchered by hunters. Beauty and loss. Somehow, they are not at odds.
There is a loose chiastic structure to Stay, parts 1 and 3 playing emotions and images off each other from opposite sides of the central maelstrom of part 2. Much that is anticipated in the book’s first section is realized in part 2 and reflected back on in part 3, fought with, claimed or lost. The book is well-served by this structure, and would lack a good deal of its emotional coherence without it. Additionally, McGookey more than earns her prose poetry format. I’ve rarely read a poet who seems to so justify this particular form (one sometimes given to laziness and lack of purpose) as she does here. She is masterful in evoking, by turns explicitly and implicitly, the precise layers of feeling in her heart with the graceful and succinct images of these paragraphs.
One final note: anger plays a curious role in Stay. It’s expression here in specific poems peppered throughout the others feels intentionally out of place, discordant. When does anger not feel disruptive? There are a number of poems in which the poet refers to her anger as a person, a visiting guest, one she doesn’t know quite what to do with. The poem referenced earlier about the rotting possum and the feasting swallowtail is titled Two Kinds of Anger. If one pictures grief and joy wrestling together in the book, anger is a sprite periodically jabbing a sharp stick into the fray and afflicting both combatants indiscriminately. It is a clever way to handle an emotion that does often feel like a secondary and foreign nuisance when the big ones like grief show up.
Stay is a marvelous exploration of sorrow and peace, grief and joy, birth and death, life and loss. Prophecy finds fulfillment finds exposition, the latter of which is most of life. It is memory that stays.
Stay will be available at Greenville Public Library soon.
Full disclosure: GPL received a free review copy of Stay. Receipt of this free copy in no way influenced the outcome of the review.
Cover photo by David Nilsen.
Author portrait by Kaitlin LaMoine Martin.