The Grief Performance
Emily Kendal Frey
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
Emily Kendal Frey’s The Grief Performance feels like a dream, which is to say, it is a volatile act of hope that turns what you know into confetti. These poems are little machines full of knives, birds living underwater. These poems will open you up and say things into you that will never come back out. Here we are: “stuck to the sides / of canyons, rinsing our hair / in debris” (from “Meditation on a Meditation of Frost”). Hold on tight. The difference between lightening and lightning is a matter of music.
Within all this singing, Frey sifts through the emotional wreckage of what it means to feel love and loss, and, somehow, still exist. From “The History of Knives,” the prose poem that anchors the book:
When I met you we were the shape of salt shakers. I married my dad and threw him in the ocean. I dragged him along the bottom as he filled with salt. I opened my legs and a grasshopper was there. Your first home was a house on stilts with butter dishes. I slept in the shape of what you told me about your house.
Pushing forward through its language-driven dream logic, the poem then navigates through the Fibonacci sequence, a singing neck, vintage ashtrays, and the speaker’s grandfather on the subway, all moving towards the crescendo of the last line: “There are three dead people in me.” Confetti, confetti, confetti. And this gets at the performance in The Grief Performance: connected or disconnected, separate or together, in or out of love, awake or asleep, alive or dead, what does it mean to be a singular person, a distinct self? For Frey, the answer is that the self is unstable, without borders, something saturated with the world and the people closet to us. In the first section of the book’s opening poem, “The March,” Frey writes:
To be separate
is to be the smallest
I’m not reading enough
I should be more
up to date with people’s blogs
Aside from the sheer joy one experiences from reading the word ‘blog’ in a poem, the idea of the blog as performance comments on the distant, impersonal ways that we present ourselves to one another. Guileless, contemporary, funny, this is the voice of a poet without artifice, one who knows, at the poem’s end, that regardless of the imaginary divisions we create “We’re all going / to the same place.” In “The End,” one of a series of poems with the same title that closes the book’s first section, Frey extends this idea of a larger union by aligning disparate emotions, hauntingly reimagining how what we love hurts us the most.
of blueberry bushes
Oh the soft
to burn me in
In harmony with the varied aesthetic of the poems in The Grief Performance, the book’s third section is made up entirely of “Meditation on a Meditation of Frost,” a poem in 29 sections that varies from lyrical to proverbial to purely explosive. In their completeness, sections 3, 11, and 15, respectively:
Today is the anniversary
of every other day. Insofar as
no one knows
Elves, backyard pit barbeque, lilacs,
termites in the backseat:
the sum of it makes a person
want to: lemons, lemons, lemons.
Someone in the office drinks too much.
Antiseptic, booze, metallic spearmint tinge,
I follow it
from break room to
cubicle. That was me
in my twenties – up all night,
fucking fucking fucking.
Both suffering and exuberant, these poems are a brave act against what holds us apart from one another and for removing the masks that we sweat and hide beneath. Though each of us is incredibly small and separate, these poems seem to say, there is a chance that in opening ourselves, in letting ourselves be a part of something frighteningly and magically huge, we can move beyond mere performance into a space of meaningful belief in this world and one another. Section 26 of “Meditation on a Meditation of Frost” brings this vision into focus.
“Pelagic” is a word
that means “occurring in the open
sea.” This will mean nothing
unless you live underwater
I’ve been waiting
for the tiny dot
of your boat on the horizon.
An act of magic.
There is nothing closer to grief than hope. Emily Kendal Frey knows this, and has bent it into a heart shaped like a book of poems. It’s obvious: “We’re being / made love to, don’t you see?”
Nick Sturm is a graduate student in the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts. He is an assistant editor of the Akron Series in Poetry and associate editor of the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics. His reviews are forthcoming in Coldfront, H_NGM_N, The Laurel Review, On the Seawall, and Whiskey Island. His first book-length editorial venture, The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, was published by the University of Akron Press in January of 2011.
Also by Nick Sturm:
Review of Come On All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder
“You stick a line from a B52s song into the middle of everything”:
A Conversation with David Dodd Lee