Friday, March 30, 2012

Hillary Gravendyk: Harm

Harm, Hillary Gravendyk (Omnidawn, 2011)

One feels old. The letter carrier today brought Michael Heller's huge and beautifully designed This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 (Nightboat), and all I could think was, this isn't right – Mike's a guy with a handful of exquisite collections, not a brick of a book like this. But then I realized, I was stuck in the late 1980s, when Heller published In the Builded Place; and he's been publishing a new, strong collection every few years since; and before you know it, yes all those slim volumes add up to an almost 600-page volume. Need I add that I can't wait to dive into This Constellation, to re-meet all those old acquaintances among his poems, & savor the new work?
I suppose we've been witnessing the full-blown return of the lyric "I" for the last 2 decades or so – and some of course would say it's never gone away. Hillary Gravendyk's Harm is an almost unbearably personal sequence of poems, written in the wake of the author's double lung transplant. "Harm" – the harm of her decade-long pulmonary disorder, the harm of the unimaginably invasive medical procedure that she's undergone, the psychological harm of living with one's face to a fundamentally uncertain future – harm is here fused intricately and inextricably with healing, so that the process of healing itself becomes a kind of torture, the hive of bee-stings with every breath taken in.

Gravendyk intersperses densely metaphorical prose poems with sparser, still metaphorized, verse. In the end it's the sure-footed lyricism of the book, the impressive music of the lines that carries the reader onward thru the at times nightmarish hospital landscape, where the body becomes interpenetrated, even fused with the digital mechanisms our century deploys to prolong, sustain, and jump-start life.
Shore curved like an instep against the soft fray of water
but all the litter of other lives
and minus shells, minus salt glass
begins a poem on a "Sleep Chart": see how "lives" and "like," "litter" and "water" bind the second line to the first, how the 2nd and 3rd lines play variations on the "l" sound, how the delicate spondee of "salt glass" (delicate on account of its short vowels) touches a faint rhyme with "lives."

I want to use the words "lovely" and "moving" for this book – they feel like boilerplate. Suffice it to say that Gravendyk's collection kept me, rivetted, in the rooms & neighborhood of a hospital – my least favorite place on earth – for eighty rapt pages.


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