Four new collections explore the dimensions of women’s lives.
Grief is a perennial subject for poets, and for good reason: In making art out of our losses, we not only memorialize our dead but can, with luck and skill, sing or speak our way into healing. Four new collections by women poets all revolve, in one way or another, around grief and its aftermath. Each offers poetry of exploration, catharsis, and even consolation.
Allison Benis White’s third collection, The Wendys (Four Way Books), is a strange and magical book. I say strange in that it skirts the “real” subject at hand, the death of the writer’s mother, Wendy, by exploring the lives (and, sometimes, deaths) of five women, real and fictional, who share her first name.
Each of the book’s five sections is titled with its particular Wendy’s last name and begins with an epigram written either by or about her. Such tight organizing principles might seem to leave little room for invention, and I’ll admit I found myself resisting the first section, centered on Wendy O. Williams, the lead singer of the punk band the Plasmatics, who committed suicide in 1998.
The discord between my memories of Williams’ histrionic performances and White’s spare, elusive lines made me struggle to grasp what the poet is aiming for here; the fact that the poems in this section are all epistolary, addressed to a “W.” who I can only assume is Williams, added to the distance I felt from most of the poems themselves.
But the rest of the book did indeed cast its spell on me. The second section, focused on a series of photographs by Wendy Given called “On Myth and Magic,” lured me into another, enveloping world, with its first poem, “The Track”:
Of course it is the absence
that is so beautiful.
Human or animal, the snow
will fall and cover her
Maybe each word
is a footprint filling up
I was here, meaning
I am disappearing.
The confiding tone of the first two words, the line breaks on “absence” and “beautiful,” the blurred pairing of human and animal, “footprint” and “word,” all leading to the tragic juxtaposition, in the last couplet, of “I was” and “I am,” and the poet’s mastery of white space, its mysteries, and its silences pulled me completely into the world of this and all the other Wendys.
Subsequent sections — written to and for Wendy Torrance, from Stephen King’s The Shining; Wendy Coffield, teenaged victim of a serial killer; and Wendy Darling, from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan — spiral deeper and deeper into images of women’s subjugation, terror, anger, and sacrifice. I was left breathless. This is a difficult collection to digest, but it definitely rewards rereading, especially if accompanied by a bit of research into the various Wendys.
Jill Bailosky’s fifth collection, Asylum: A Personal, Historical, Natural Inquiry in 103 Lyric Sections (Knopf), is also an exploration of personal loss and its aftermath — in this case, the poet's sister’s suicide —through widening circles of allusion, reference, and metaphor. But while White is interested in contemporary women and popular culture, Bailosky’s muses are all rooted in the past.
Asylum is thick with allusions to Virgil, Dante, Paul Celan, Anna Akhmatova, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and others. That, combined with its structure — one long sequence in five sections, with the individual poems numbered rather than titled — makes for a challenging, knotty read. And that’s appropriate for its central topic, which emerges in the first four stanzas of poem XXXV:
Every April’s a requiem, a re-awakening of dawn, the same chorus
& players. The garage door sealed, gas turned on & the girl
once addled by alcohol & drugs, by a broken heart, by a mind that won’t stop,
by the ticker tape of loneliness, there she is again, slumped against the door,
hair tangled around her neck, effervescent eyes now closed, rings
& bracelets catching the hint of morning sun, the myth of the girl
unraveling, when the boy who arrives to cut the lawn, opens the garage to fetch
the lawn mower & finds her. The birds are trumpets and flutes, the wind’s a piano.
The inevitability of that first stanza, evoking the seasonal aspect of grief many of us know too well; the progression of things that “addled” the girl, culminating in “loneliness”; the final closing of those “effervescent” eyes; and, at last, nature’s indifference — making its sweet spring songs despite the tragedy the garage door reveals — pack a masterful punch.
The poet returns to that scene, the key in the ignition, the girl in the car, again and again in circling, harrowing glimpses. While there were times reading Asylum when I felt mired in a thicket of literary references, they were more than compensated for by the lyrical empathy and deep intelligence the poet brings to every page.
Lesley Wheeler’s fifth collection, The State She’s In (Tinderbox Editions), tackles grief of a different nature: the loss of sane, honest government in the United States after the 2016 election. “State” in the title refers as much to the poet’s home state, Virginia, as it does to her emotional state, which is by turns angry and hopeful, celebratory and defiant, and absolutely of this moment in our country’s history.
In “In the Pink,” the narrator and her daughter participate in the protest march that accompanied Donald Trump’s inauguration, despite her ambivalence about it effectiveness: “Meanwhile, men orate. / This continues to be America.”
In “Dear Anne Spencer,” she writes to the titular late Harlem Renaissance poet and fellow Virginia native about an awkward political fundraiser the speaker attended: “Over tea in your garden, I’d say more, / but for now, let’s admit I was rude.” In “Situation Room,” she laments the misogynistic coverage of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
These are strong poems, fierce and exacting — but they are not the whole of the book. For Wheeler, like Anne Sexton before her, is as given to lyrical celebration as she is to honing her anger. One of the strongest of those celebratory poems is the book’s opening, “State Song,” an invocation of and homage to the beauty of Virginia. It begins, “Because I call you, wind strips trees / of brittle limbs they did not need,” and concludes with these gorgeous lines:
and clouds pattern fields with roving
spotlights. Because I call you, power
thrums the ground. Now is the hour,
gilded, grand. I call this dazzle ours.
The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon (Graywolf Press) is in itself a document of community grief: a selection of poems by a late, beloved American poet, edited by her husband, Donald Hall, also much loved, and also now deceased. The cheeky intimacy of the title — not the more formal “selected,” but “best” — seems perfectly suited to this poet, whose subject matter traces a smaller circle than any of the poets mentioned above. Family, domesticity, settled love, and daily chores are her preoccupations.
If that sounds limiting, well, it certainly can be. Themes are restated — the surprise and unreliability of happiness, the simple pleasures of gardening, say, or of giving a dog a treat — and can become predictable.
Kenyon’s voice, though often lovely, lacks the wide, dynamic range of White’s or Wheeler’s. But at her best, Kenyon is piercingly perceptive about both herself and her world. This concluding stanza from “Thinking of Madame Bovary” is a fine example of her strengths:
And then I spied an ant
Dragging a ragged, disembodied wing
up the warm brick wall. It must have been
the Methodist in me that leaned forward,
preceded by my shadow, to put a twig just where
the ant was struggling with its own desire.
Rose Solari is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, The Last Girl, Orpheus in the Park, and Difficult Weather; the one-act play “Looking for Guenevere”; and the novel A Secret Woman. She has lectured and taught writing workshops at many institutions, including the University of Maryland, College Park; St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland; and the University of Oxford’s Centre for Creative Writing in Oxford, England. Her awards include the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, an EMMA award for excellence in journalism, and multiple grants. In 2010, she co-founded Alan Squire Publishing, a small press with big ideas.