Book Review: Geode (Ona Gritz)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
When her first book of poetry, Left Standing, was published in 2005, Ona Gritz established herself as a writer with a talent for distilling complex emotions into palpable, everyday language. The largely narrative poems revealed the relationships within the family, especially those surrounding the illness and death of her parents. While much was packed into that book, something else was purposely omitted. Few poems drew attention to, or even alluded to her cerebral palsy. With the forthcoming publication of Geode (Main Street Rag Press, 2014) all of that has changed.
All one has to do is flip to the list of publication credits on the acknowledgements page of her latest book to see how much Gritz has accomplished as a writer. Perhaps most telling is the large number of recognitions given to two periodicals in particular, Literary Mama, for which Gritz writes a regular column and Wordgathering, which, of course, features the work of writers with disabilities. Just where the pivot point came is hinted at in Gritz wonderful essay "A Conscious Decision" from Beauty is a Verb. Describing the vicissitudes of caring for her new son Ethan, she recounts a conversation with a friend who has called to offer advice:
What she didn't understand was that the one hand I had that was capable of pouring cereal and milk, of using a spoon, was the same one hand that could safely prop an infant's head. Hardly anyone knew this about me, and I found that fact frightening. Faced with caring for my baby and myself, I no longer wanted to pass as able-bodied.
For many writers with disabilities it is anger at the system, dismay at the stares on the street, or feelings of marginalization that propel them to transform from an art-for-arts sake poet to one who recognizes the integral relationship between their lived lives as people with disability and their poetry. In Gritz's case, that catalyst was motherhood. The structure of Geode as a triptych, with the intersection of motherhood and disability forming the central panel, underscores this point.
To say that Gritz made the conscious decision to let disability inform her poetry does not mean that she abandons her former approach or the skills that made her first book successful. The first section of Geode, "Her Window," in particular, makes this perfectly clear. What it allows readers to see is that, like any good poet sculpting a point of viewpoint, Gritz omitted entire strands from the picture of the family she portrayed in Left Standing, a strand that revealed would have cast a different picture on that book. After reading Geode, readers will find it interesting to go back and rediscover Gritz's first book in the new light that is shed.
Geode is divided into three sections: "Her Window," "Geode" and "Wings." "Her Window" is composed of poems that move Gritz from early childhood into almost-adulthood. The title of the section calls to mind comments that poet/biographer Jennifer Bartlett has made about Larry Eigner, that what filled his poems was what he was able to view from his front porch or front window. Like Gritz, Eigner had cerebral palsy, but of a nature that was much more physically limiting. Gritz's window is much wider but what is important is that it is her window. Not only is she viewing the world from her vantage point, but now the focus has shifted from the rest of the family to her own development.
"In Rockaway," the poem that opens the first section, foreshadows much of the rest of the book. Water imagery plays an important role for Gritz, as it has for many poets, but in addition to the many symbolic references it generates, for people with physical disabilities it has a concrete significance. It allows them to move about much more freely than the remainder of their daily lives allows. This is not just a metaphorical freedom, but a real one. Stuart Sanderson, whose CP is comparable to Eigner's conveys this feeling in the opening of his poem "Looking Upward":
Floating in the swimming pool
At only three years old Gritz is only beginning to recognize this freedom. Coaxed reluctantly into the ocean waves by her father and uncle, Gritz is fearful, and still feels relief each time they lift her magically above the waves.
I do not yet know this is my element,
The first lines of the poem "I have been out of the water/ three years breathing air," not only establishes water as a kind of home key, but begins the connection of images of water and birth that she maintains throughout the book. In addition, the poem foreshadows another theme in the book: "I do not yet know I will come here/ in dark hours with other men." If reinterpretation to create new meaning is the mark of a savvy poet, then Gritz's placement of "In Rockaway," a poem included in her first collection, as the lead poem in Geode definitely establishes that skill.
As this first section continues, the intertwined themes of disability and sexuality emerge more fully. Disability studies scholars generally differentiate between two components of disability. The first is the actual physical, cognitive or mental impairment. The second is the cluster of social attitudes surrounding impairment.
The first overt mention of the author's impairment comes in the fourth poem of the book "Hemiplegia I" when the five year old Gritz asks her mother why she is able to feel less with her right side than with her left. In assuring her daughter that her heart beats the same as everyone else, Gritz mother also unwittingly opens the possibility that there are two aspects to her, those in which she is like others and those in which she is different.
That difference is given a visible outward sign in one of my favorite poems, "Stride Rite." Gritz, of course, can not stride right and, though she longs to wear Mary Janes and brown suede clogs like the other girls, the shoe salesman is the gatekeeper, "Sorry, Princess, no sexy glass sling backs/for handicapped girls today." Instead she is given "oxfords with good support." Though as a five year old, she sees the shoe store as the "house of denial," in reality, it does something even worse. It visibly marks her as different.
No wonder then that by adolescence Gritz is already acquainted with the concept (though not the vocabulary of) passing. Passing in its most basic sense is trying to hide or disguise whatever it is that marks you as different from others in order to be seen as "normal." This can, however, be broadened to include writers who give no hint of their disability in their writing.
Gritz's poem "Passing" focuses on this dilemma in a vignette that marries both her increasing recognition of herself as different with the growing awareness of sexuality. She is both the all-American girl who secretly kissed a boy in the corner at a school dance and has volunteered to take part in charity events for youth groups, and the girl who is potentially the object of that charity. In playing the role that enforces stereotypes of normalcy, she implicitly rejects identifying herself as someone with a disability and therefore helps to push those she dances with further towards the margins. At some level she realizes this, saying that in choosing one of those "palsied strangers…It will like dancing with her secret self."
Poems like "Taking It In," "Border Song" and "Eighteen" develop the well-recognized theme of the emergence of sexuality in adolescence. Poet and critic John Lee Clark has put forth the opinion that writers with disabilities who fail to take advantage of their unique perspective risk producing work that fails to offer anything new, and Gritz's adolescence poems are a case in point. It's hard to follow in the wake of women writers like Sexton and Olds and, despite being well-written (and a lot easier to take) these poems would not add anything to the feminist cache were it not for the greater context. What makes the final lines of "Eighteen":
I had already begun to taste it,
poignant are the lines that precede it:
We all understand the impulse to embrace that feeling of wholeness and it is the tension between knowing how illusionary it is and the need we have for it, that creates the emotional bond between Gritz's words and the reader.
Despite embracing this illusion of normalcy and its aftereffects in the second section of the book there are two quick flashes that hint at the tentativeness of this resolution. The first comes in the poem "Her Window" where riding on a train at night the adolescent narrator looks at the beauty of her reflection in the window and is caught with a single thought. "What if this is it?" What if this moment is the pinnacle of her beauty? The second inkling that her decision to pass is not absolute comes in the final poem of the section, "We Are Everywhere." Watching other New Yorkers with disabilities on the street, she is fascinated by how they carry on with their lives, enough so that she follows a girl in a wheelchair "willing her to notice I'm kin."
As she did in the first section of the book, Gritz opens the second section, "Geode" with a poem that anticipates what follows. Bellowing downhill on her bicycle, eyes shut, the future poet tells the reader that despite her fear she has not fallen or crashed and will continue to trust dumb luck. Plunging in is exactly what happens in the next few poems where she describes that leap into marriage that she envisioned as assuring normalcy and happiness. The fact that none of the poems that include her husband mention his name and that he shows up in only six of the twenty-eight poems in the section gives a pretty good indication of how this all goes. It is particularly telling that in a poem called "The Night We Decide On Divorce," the only person mentioned in the poem is her son. Her son, Ethan, is, in fact, the pivotal point of this section. And the gyre around which this section turns is not the poem with divorce in the title, but another called "No."
In "No" the italicized words Cerebral palsy, jump out at the reader as the first mention of disability in this section. The one-word title echoes a nurse's response to Gritz who, in the hospital with her newborn son, has asked for the help she needs in order to nurse her son. The word epiphany is slung around far too frequently, but the last two lines of the poem argue that it is appropriate here:
We cried in unison, both of us
The remainder of this section of the book, the largest part of the triptych, focuses on the dual developments of the poet as a single mother and as a woman with cerebral palsy. Several poems towards the end remind those readers who are familiar with Left Standing that all of this was going on at a time when her mother was dying. It is another case of reciprocity between the two books – not repetition, but a mutual encompassment and enlargement.
The title of the third section of the book "Wings" is a bit of an aberration both in that it approaches cliché (something very untypical of Gritz) and because it does not echo the name of any of the poems within that section. Luckily, the first poem within, "There Among the Haves" dispels any doubt about the quality of the work it contains. The opening image immediately recalls the poem "Passing" earlier in the book, but this time rather than viewing her disability as a source of embarrassment it instead provides her with a sense of acceptance and love. By claiming disability, she brings herself in from the margins. Details like "the guide dog curled at our feet" and "he whispered that my breasts form a perfect C in Braille" provide readers the detail to understand the reason for this change in feeling and prepare them for the love poems that follow.
The poem that follows immediately "Because You Can't See My Photographs" – the second poem in this section – plays counterpoint to "That Hand," the second poem in the preceding section. Whereas in the first poem, she had hoped that bringing her future husband to the house she had grown up in would provide him with some way of understanding her as a person by connecting to her past, she is now in love with a man who can not see the photographs that she has to offer, yet believes more fervently than ever in Faulkner's admonition "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." Because he is able to recognize this, she can also recoup some of that childhood faith in the future. As the remainder of the book develops, neither her son nor her parents are forgotten but now they are enfolded in another context too.
One of the challenges facing Gritz, particularly given the nature of her subject, is how to write accessible intelligent poetry. Poets in a democracy are always faced with the dilemma choice of following their art into increasingly new and complex realms and creating work that is intelligible to more than just the elite. What Gritz has opted to do is forgo some version of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry or disjunctive postmodern experimentations that rely on a conceptual underpinning not possessed by most readers and opt instead for the intelligent use of intelligible language and the mirroring of words and images among poems. It is nuanced writing but everything one needs to know for the poems to work is contained within the covers of the book.
The poems in Geode are all short – approximately sonnet-length – and like Shakespearean sonnets, it is frequently the final couple of lines in the poems that deliver the punch. Gritz is a master of the two-line ending, something that it appears simple enough to execute but in fact is difficult. Among other things one risks banality, moralizing, repeating the obvious and appearing cute. In most cases, Gritz is highly successful allowing the poem to reflect both backwards and forwards, from what the reader knows already to what is yet to come. Occasionally, however, she misses, as I feel that she does in the title poem. We all know what a geode is and the metaphor involved. Many readers probably also understand that the longer its formation has taken, the larger and more beautiful the crystals. Therefore, to me, the final lines ("Beauty can be jagged./A broken thing can shine") seems to be pounding home something we already understand. This may be a discovery for the four year old in the poem, but my hunch is not many four year olds are reading the poem. Gritz underestimates the audience so rarely, though, that when it happens all it proves is the difficulty of the balancing act she has been performing throughout the rest of the book.
One of the beauties of Gritz's poetry is that virtually every poem is complete in itself and yet an integral part of a greater whole. What this means is that a poem like "Geode" can appear in a periodical having nothing at all to do with disability and be meaningful to the reader, yet set in the context of Geode it takes on overtones that imbue it with a much greater significance. Individually, her poems may be lyric, but all together they form a narrative. Virtually every line in the poem is in conversation with another poem in the book. This is Gritz's solution to Clark's admonition for writers with disabilities to write about what they know and the hesitation of poets generally to be bound by labels that restrict their audience appeal. To pull this off is the goal of many poets but, unlike Gritz, most do not succeed. Readers who spotted Molly Peacock's and Stephen Dunn's names among those who had a hand in reviewing Geode may not be surprised at Gritz's achievement.
For a book in which the poems are remarkably reflective, each rebounding in all the others, Geode is remarkably free of the poet's references to writing or her own development as a poet, but in one of the final poems she has this to say, words both humbling and hopeful, that might well serve as her conclusion:
All you have
At their best, that is how the poems in Geode can make the reader feel.