Book Review

Of course this dirt traveled
cleanly through phone lines
from ladies like her mother
who never hold secrets. Who,
even as they offer advice,
rehearse the words they'll use
select the people to tell

Mean, the girl thinks, working
the stiff legs of a Barbie into capris.
Still, she's drawn into the thick
twists of a good story

With these words from "Why Books?", the lead off poem of Left Standing, Ona Gritz sets the frametale for her first book of poetry.

Gritz is a writer best known for her work in children's books. She is also the winner of the 2007 Inglis House Poetry contest on poetry of disability with her poem "First Anniversary." Left Standing, however, is not about Gritz's disability but, as the original title of the above poem states, "One Writer's Beginnings."

Like many recent books of poetry, Left Standing is not a random collection of best poems, but a series of poems that, taken as a whole form a narrative. The title of the book comes from a poem by Linda Pastan and refers to the climax of the story, the death of the poet's father and her realization that she is now on her own in the world. Structurally the book is divided into two parts, the first half focusing on her mother's life, the second on her father's. The relationship among the members of the family and her relationship with each of her parents form the subjects of the poems.

In "At a Friend's House" the poet Gritz allows the reader to see the relationship of her parents while the child Ona begins to discover the world beyond the dynamics of her family:

There are things to be learned at a friend's house.
Your mother's shrill commands to your father,
the scalding eye he turns to her, aren't usual.
There are choices.

When her friend's parents show affection towards each other, the disconnect between her world and that of others deepens:

They were flirting! I nudged my friend
but she shrugged, flipped through Tiger-Beat,
this ground as familiar as their pale blue shag.

Several of the poems in the first half of the book deal with her mother's illness, hospitalization, hospice and eventual death. Gritz's down to earth, unpretentious use of language is perfect for the description of her mother lying in the coffin.

Last Look

Her makeup was all wrong.
the sweet flattering pinks,
fine precise lines.
Pretty, I thought.
Too pretty, like a doll. And like a doll,
the boxed her up,
closing the lid at my nod.
In life,
my mother lined her eyes
with thick impatient strokes,
slashed on blush,
never bothered to blend.
She closed her compact
with a decisive click
as if to say,
there's more to life than this,
move on!

The second half of the book in some ways mirrors the first half - memories of the author's relationship with her father, the inability of the members of the family to show affection for each other and her father's eventual death. The poems in which Gritz describe her father seem somewhat less certain than those of her mother, whose personality she seems to have more insight into. In one of the more intriguing poems of the book, "In Rockaway" the writer explores her own incipient sense of her sexuality and relationship with men. Two poems cast her father in the role of the traditional paternal figure who needs to warn his teenage daughter about men. Against this obligatory fatherly advice, however, she says,

I am still that girl who can't explain
why my insides rise like tide

lines in "Taking It In" that connect her back to her earlier self in "In Rockaway." When her father is in the hospital on his death bed, he seems to realize in a flash of clarity how much he loves his daughter. On the one hand, one wishes that there had been a few more poems to fill out the father's character, but, on the other, perhaps that is the point - how little they really knew of one another.

After the death of her father comes the strongest poem of the book "Til Death," a poem in which the emotional opposition of Gritz's parents reaches its peak.

My father lay beside his father
whose foot stone read Beloved Husband.
who lay beside my grandmother, Beloved Wife.
On my father's other side, the unused plot.
You'd think my mother was alive among the grieving,
throwing finger-fulls of dirt into that open hole,
that new wound.

Anger searing, she chose to have her body charred.
Sealed from Jewish heaven, like Lilith,
she shrugged. She'd had enough of him in life.
Fifty years, shrill with spats. Silent treatment,
separate beds. At last if was official, eternal.
The way she saw it, he dug this grave.

After this a denouement is inevitable, but there is still a bit of discovery for the reader. At the end of the first section, on the way to taking her mother's ashes to be spread at Donner Lake, Gritz comments:

I gathered my things
walked towards the plane
That would take me to my brother.
He and I were, after all,
What was left of her flesh.

It is only after her father's death and "Til Death" that the reader discovers in "Infant Older Brother" that the brother she refers to had died in infancy. With this revelation, the reader now knows that the speaker of the poems is "left alone."

There are few books of poetry that one picks up and reads straight through because they could not put it down, but Left Standing is one of them. Despite its apparent simplicity, it is a book that rewards rereading because more is learned each time. For beginning writers who feel that poetry can only be successful through the use of $50 words and extra-textual literary allusions, this collection should be mandatory reading. Without pretense, fanfare or emotional self-indulgence, Gritz shows you what poetry can do.

Left Standing is part of the New Women's Voices Series and is available from Finishing Line Press.