Window Left Open
by Jennifer Grotz, Graywolf Press, 64 pages
The poet Jennifer Grotz makes fruit come to life. There is something of Cézanne in her treatment of fruit — you can reach for her apricots, bruises and all, while she also gets us to consider what it means to be “ripe.” The poem “Apricots” is included in her refreshing new book,
Seeing and registering what the narrator sees are self-conscious acts in these poems. “The Forest” begins thus: “During the day I have watched them stand around and chew the yellow grass,/the longsuffering cows.” The narrator attempts, image by image, to comprehend a natural world we too often glaze over. “The Mountain” begins in a similarly self-aware fashion: “No matter how long I looked, I couldn’t see it all,/much less understand it.” The poem ends with the narrator telling us that she looked so much “just to try to tell you what the sun did to it. And the clouds.”
Grotz perceives the world with surprising earnestness, and she admits failure when she can’t get past the image. The sensory honesty of her language invites us in, as do her neatly trimmed sentences — there’s no weedy imagery here that chokes the path. There are, however, surprises: Phrases such as “perfectly useless concentration” or “psychedelic ponytail of feathers” are not so dense that they can’t roll off the tongue, yet they are curvy enough to keep us rereading the lines and lead us, when we least expect it, to a moment of clarity. This juxtaposition of simplicity and sudden insight is reminiscent of Sufi poems. The poem “Locked,” about the human heart, especially recalls the Sufi poet Hafiz: “because God only loves the strong thief/I mean the man who breaks his heart for God.”
The poems glide from woods to cobblestone paths. Grotz encounters a peacock in Europe, and she asks the reader what to make of him and what to make of the poem. And so she changes the game, breaking “A Poem About a Peacock” open. “And should the poem zoom out to history? For the peacock is only here because castles and monasteries always had peacocks, just look at the frescoes in the refectory.” The poem brings to mind the Flannery O’Connor essay “The King of the Birds” (from Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose), which has a deeper knowledge of that bird. O’Connor’s peacocks traveled by crate from Florida to her Georgia farm, and she ended up with a collection of no less than 40: “Frequently the cock combines the lifting of his tail with the raising of his voice. He appears to receive through his feet some shock from the center of the earth, which travels upward through him and is released: Eee-ooo-ii! Eee-ooo-ii! To the melancholy this sound is melancholy and to the hysterical it is hysterical. To me it has always sounded like a cheer for an invisible parade,” O’Connor writes.
Grotz’s poems are keenly observed, but there’s also something fleeting about them, as though the narrator is a passerby rather than someone who lives in the vistas she describes. They work best, not surprisingly, when she is in her own emotional terrain, when the poems exude that feeling of a woman who retains her girlish being — who watches and watches, deciding what to make of the world she finds herself in.
“The Whole World Is Gone” is a poem in a different register. It knows the narrator’s heart better than O’Connor knew her 40 peacocks. “What I do alone, loving him in my mind. Trying not to let imagination win over reality. Hurtling through the night, a passion so spent becomes a fact one observes.” Here is a poem that weaves its way into your heart and becomes something akin to a ballad. — Priyanka Kumar