Book Review

Grief Suite is Bobbi Lurie's third book of poetry and possibly has the most to reveal as a source of poetry about disability. The title is apt. Grief is the overwhelming emotion in these poems and the suite structure, as in music, gives her the latitude to associate the emotions conveyed without necessarily tying it to any formal organization.

Perhaps (for the visually oriented reader) even more than listening to a suite, reading Grief Suite is like looking at a Chagall painting. There are narrative images that juxtapose, link together, and contribute to an overall weltanschauung, but there is no equal sign at the end of the book. There is a connectivity, but it consists of the repetitions of words, phrases, images that draw readers back and forth as much as leading them in any linear direction.

Lurie's book pivots on its title poem, and the line "Everything conspires to speak for the mother." The poem recounts the mother's descent into senility, her hospitalization, her physical decline and her death, but as the poets says, "The approximate location of the daughter's grief is not the body but the space around it." The narrator knew of and kept the secrets of her mother's illness for seven years, yet was not present as her brothers were, when she died. While her brother, who has not seen the mother in years utters platitudes at the funeral, the daughter/poet who is privy to secrets about the mother feels almost inhabited by her mother and haunted by the fact that her mother did not wait for her to be present to die.

Six days after the funeral, the daughter screams, sees a blue jay trapped in her room. The same shock over and over. The husk of the mother trapped, flapping her hands, unable to speak. The bird pounds its body again and again, poundssoundless against the window ledge sky-filled with blue.

Before the end of the poem the daughter is on Celexea prescribed for her by a doctor to deal with her vertigo. In the words of the poem own words, "Everywhere the daughter looks she sees the mother." "Grief Suite" ends in the image of cornfields burning from a match carelessly thrown by the mother.

By this point in the book the image of cornfields is not new to it's readers. They've met it in the book's introductory poem "Traveling North," one of Lurie's strongest:

Though you are dead now. Though I walk covered in dust through this strip mall in Iowa. I remember the collection of tendencies that led me here. The flat landscape. The blazing heat of cornfields. The landscape and the body are one sensation.

. . .

The cornfields are memories. You cannot remember anything. The road is filled with dust. Your life is. Your death. I cannot fit it in this landscape. This collection of tendencies.

"Traveling North" sets up the body as landscape, as geography, so it is not surprising that many of the tendencies of photography apply to Lurie's poems – the attention to the physical world, the focus on detail, the constant references to light and its effect upon the perception of landscape. At the same time, there are aspects of landscape that can not be seen, only felt, "the atmospheric pressures in the vicinity of the living." Where these pressure come from and how they affect the body, not to mention the mind, and how to communicate the effects if those pressures is one of the challenges Lurie faces in her poems.

One solution is suggested in the title of the poem, "Feeling Finds Pattern in Language." These patterns are not just within poems as in "Traveling North" where the words sheep, slaughter, cornfields, inheritance and images such as the hands reaching up to touch brush back hair or to strike are repeated. Landscape, memory, light and death do not just bridge the gap between "Traveling North" and "Grief Suite, " they permeate the book as "a collection of tendencies" that work to recreate the atmospheric pressure Lurie writes of.

Repetition combines with short or fragmented sentences to convey a sense of vertigo.

Memory and the loss of memory. The daughter's dizziness gets the best of her. She takes a test, tracing the dizziness, the eyes register, memorize. The mother is indelible forever. And the dizziness.

Even as she successfully uses these techniques, Lurie seems to distrust their ability to convey her experiences, calling to my Lao Tse's admonition that "The word that can be spoken is not the word." Throughout the book, she experiments with line length, spacing and poetic form. She calls upon conventions from epitaph, psalm and even html coding.

From a Wordgathering perspective, Grief Suite also offers some interesting vignettes related to medical treatment and hospitalization. Perhaps the most chilling comes in "Waking in Old Age," where Lurie assuming a first person voice describes the realities of a nursing home, rehab facility or hospital that residents and patients know only too well:

But the nurses bring
Their crude humor, the way they change my diaper,
Then joke about the load,
Then fold me into a chair, pulling too hard on my arm,
Further harm lurking behind the curtains,
If they were to pull the drapes around me

They could beat me blue
With bruises
Blooming daily on my body anyway.

Who would know?

The disturbing messages in these lines is not, as one might think, the fear of bruises, but the atmosphere of intimidation and the total lack of control to do anything about it as a result of being dependent upon those who are creating that atmosphere. Once can only imagine how terrifying a situation is for those unable to verbalize or communicate, in any way, their fears.

Other noteworthy poems describing the medicalized environment are "Once My Heart Was Wide and Loved the World" which describes Lurie's experience as a patient from diagnoses through treatment in "a cancer factory" and "Strange Light, " an intriguing and eerily satisfying poem about a man's coming to terms with himself in a hospice situation.

One of the pleasures of Grief Suite is that despite the intricate atmospheric connections among poem, one can find satisfaction in reading the individual poems. "Strange Light, " "Too Much Light" and "Waking in Old Age" are a few. The variety of poetic structures Lurie plays with are wide enough that any reader willing to put in a little bit of work should find something to profit from. Grief Suite is available from CW Books.