All Mixed Up, For a Reason
Review of Kate Gray’s For Every Girl: New and Collected Poems
Kate Gray’s new book, For Every Girl, ends with a transcript of a conversation between Gray and Oregon poet laureate emerita, Paulann Petersen. “[T]his book is not arranged as we might expect ‘a new and selected poems’ to be arranged,” Petersen points out. “We might expect four sections. One section from each of your previous books…plus a fourth section of new poems…the new poems and older poems are all mixed together, and not in chronological order.”
Gray seems less interested in charting a clear evolution of her voice as a poet than in redefining how her work could be read in accordance to how her understanding of what’s important in life has evolved. In “Manifesto for the girl” she writes: “You are not a spoon. You do not have to curve / in service.” Consider how this idea of a manifesto has informed the purpose of the poems’ arrangement. Each of the three sections Gray has corralled the poems in is marked by a sentence declaring her intent:
Part I: “You write about the things that scare you to give courage to people who are also afraid—you go to the dangerous places first so others can feel less alone.”
Part II: “As women and men are empowered to tell their stories, the world is a lot richer from those stories and from the landscape that is created by the many voices speaking up.”
Part III: “We won’t be silenced. The more voices, the better. The more stories of survival, stories of community, the stories of siblings helping each other out—all of those stories will help us understand where we go next. And we need to go someplace.”
Gray has dedicated this collection “for my sibs,” and brothers and sisters appear often in these poems, sometimes as individuals (as in “We hear you” and “Coma”), but more often as a collective who help support one another through experiences of shared trauma, starting in childhood. “Drought” is dedicated “for my brothers” and intimates at the lasting effects of these damages: “Record rain / cannot restore what a fist / or hunger hollows.”
“Swimming in a thunderstorm” addresses the way these adult children are changed after their mother’s death. “My sister asks in a voice as soft / as water on water, Is it different, this place, / everything? Yesterday she held our mother’s hand / eggplant and black from weeks of needles.” The sisters float in a pool, aware of the threat of an approaching thunderstorm. “Mother used to sit under the awning / by the pool,” the narrator remembers, sinking to the bottom, “the rain circling on the water above me.” Now she and her sister “swim under threat / of lightning strike.” They feel bereft of a mother to say, as theirs once did, “Time to come out.”
If Gray is the narrator speaking in “Hand-me down,” she is the “youngest of six, I lived / in soft clothes, elbows bowed. Inheritance / smelled like hand-me-downs.” In “Dear sir, comma,” she listens to her mother taking a bath, “her voice, tired / from raising six children / in the ’60s, tired / from hacking herself away / from my father rooting / his madness in us all.”
In clear, simple language and understated prose, the poems show how Gray has lived, and also how she thinks it helpful to live: sensitively, urgently, responsibly.
Gray opens the collection with a poem about this father. “Pears” finds her in a Pacific Northwest coffee shop in winter. A pear scone is to Gray what a madeleine is to Proust. The fruit reminds her of learning to prune fruit trees from a Japanese gardener, and remembering her own father “barking” lessons and spooning out “canned pears soaked in syrup”—a sharp contrast from the sophistication of how “The scone, soft with the baker’s waking, holds / the sun of last summer.” Her thoughts of her father are painful ones to remember, “stuck in the place for speaking, beneath that cold V of skin.” She compares the pastry’s shape “of folded flags” to “The flag folded / from his coffin I never saw.”
“Rarely anymore do I wake myself calling” highlights a serious reason for that estrangement, suggesting sexual abuse by her father—he “slipped from my room”—and the damage it continued to inflict. “Year after year I kept quiet, growing / around my silence the way pine bark / folds barbed wire in its skin.” Gray is not alone with her father in this poem: “My mother never heard,” she writes. “And she didn’t hear.”
The mother’s deafness seems possibly willful, and appears in another poem, “Trauma brain: a love song.” Gray writes, “Mother shut / the door when she played Fats Waller, the piano crying / more than she did, her pain the score she settled / in our bones, what she ignored bored through.” Her father’s crimes are again catalogued: “Daddy isn’t supposed to do what Daddy / does, and let me live screamless for twenty-eight years.”
The mother in these poems (if indeed Gray’s) comes from Southern stock. Looking again at the poem “Hand me down,” the narrator visits the American South where her grandmother lives, “An azalea of a woman,” “her staircase a waterfall of wisteria,” and witnesses her mother accommodating the fierce tribalism of that culture, surprising her children when she “could suddenly drawl.”
“Peony” is another poem that links flowers to the women in Gray’s family, this time to her mother. “You are a beautiful wound / loosening / like the bruises packed in a mother’s / compliments, her withered / blooms never deadheaded.” Perhaps this speaks to the generational impact of trauma. Her mother’s wounds, never excised, continue to hurt the next generation. It’s an idea that several of the poems seem to suggest: our stories of the past painfully wound us, yet we hold on to them—also painfully.
Gray seems less interested in charting a clear evolution of her voice as a poet than in redefining how her work could be read in accordance to how her understanding of what’s important in life has evolved.
These connected ideas of women and flowers might speak to the collection’s prologue, a quote from Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Here we have this idea of opening, and one way this idea shows up in this collection is again connected to women, when Gray writes about her sexuality.
“My people” is Whitman-esque in its exuberant inclusiveness, each stanza beginning with the words “I claim” and then describing different “dykes”: “the dyke in the weightroom, puffing,” “the dyke in the barroom gloating,” finally opening up to embrace “all dykes honking and flocking.”
In “Beginning with the bang,” Gray writes of what she did with a lover—“With hands / passing from breasts to breasts, we try to hold what we / cannot grasp”—whereas in “Pleasure and need,” she addresses her lover directly: “Imagine your legs / are the river parting, the island / supple, a tongue.” These poems are deeply erotic and capture the heat and obsessive need of sexual desire.
“The moon on the tsunami” is more of an elegy. It mourns not only a lover lost, but the person herself:
the woman I loved
on the other side
of an ocean wrote daily
notes to say the moon
she saw was the same one
And then moves us with the realization that “After she / died, the moon was all / I saw of her.”
“Why I teach English in a community college” is a declaration that again speaks to an idea of a manifesto. “Their stories are my skin,” she writes. Here Gray again touches on her relationship to trauma—“In polite white / worlds, we spoke the only language we / knew: fine, everything is fine.”—this time discovering the solace she and her students experience in the work of finding a way to write their truths, ones that could not be expressed any other way.
Many of the poems (“Some sign,” “Something to wear,” “Someplace safe,” “Veni, vidi, vici,” and “Unlike other exiles”) highlight Gray’s experience in social work, combating societal stigmatizations, and advocating for social causes. “The frame of memory” recounts the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.:
Once pinned with pink triangles, they perished.
Because they were slaughtered, they live on.
They are the only dead we can identify, whose gassed
and ghostly bodies we claim, whose lives resonate
in the walls of one of the few museums in the world
to call us by name.
If we read these poems autobiographically, For Every Girl not only takes measure of Gray’s work, but her life. In clear, simple language and understated prose, the poems show how Gray has lived, and also how she thinks it helpful to live: sensitively, urgently, responsibly. “I will die in Portland in the rain” she imagines in “Variations on texts by Vallejo and Justice” and there’s no fanfare, no remorse or regret. There is a sense of the rightness of everything being washed away. “And after a while the friends with their warm hands / pushed off from the doorframes, stepped past the oak leaves, / and walked into the rain, eyes soft and full.” The final chord sounds, and it’s ringing with acceptance—a fitting end to an extraordinarily fine collection.
REVIEWED BY MICHAEL QUINN
Michael Quinn interviews authors and reviews books for Publishers Weekly, for the Adroit Journal, and for his own website, under the heading “Book Report.” His reading list for the reviews he’s not assigned is determined by interest, whim, and chance—and by what’s available at the Brooklyn Public Library.