Listing Grief

Reviewed by Emily Wall

Joanna Lilley, Kayla Czaga, and Pearl Pirie share a common love of language play and a sense of despair about the daily fabric of our contemporary lives. All three books deal with grief and loss on a range of scales, but all three also evidence a keen curiosity and humour.

The Fleece Era by Joanna Lilley is a tapestry of surprise. Lilley’s poems evidence a rich, curious mind and imagination. Each poem asks new things and explores some trauma or joy or disappointment of the human experience. She grounds the poems in the physical (rocks, ribs) and in her own loose memoir, but each poem manages to rise beyond the personal into a larger exploration of what it means to live now, in this particular world. She also has amusing moments of magical realism that lift us out of the examination of the mundane. Her real gift is for last lines—in the James Wright tradition, she often moves from the lyrical into the meditative—a line or two at the end that lock each poem: “If she throws all of her rocks into the ocean,/there might be enough for a bridge” (“The Collection”).

For Your Safety by Kayla Czaga is a delicate blend of bleakness and humor. Like Lilley, Czaga deals with the dying and death of parents. The opening section tells the stories of her grief, and that backgrounds the rest of the book. Many of the poems take a sharp look at the detritus of our lives: the color beige, the potato salad, the things we accumulate and hate. Like the objects she writes about, the poems themselves explore the temporary—discarded items, pop culture, and ultimately life. She has moments of intense pain like “Victoria Soto” juxtaposed with humorous poems (one that mourns the loss of Blockbuster). One of her most amusing but also poignant pieces is “The Not-Grandfathers:” “The not-grandfathers/were rented from other families, rewound/and returned.” But even as she explores the flotsam of our temporary world, each poem carries a larger thematic weight. Her poem “Temporary” beautifully encapsulates her themes and styles; it ends: “How the eggs looked full/until we held them up to the light.”

Pearl Pirie’s poems in the pet radish, shrunken are surprising, fragmented, and also explore loss, but her poems explore the smaller losses of daily life. She touches on larger dislocations—“we see what we want & when. / who we want dies” (“until the components float apart”)—but mostly the poems are playful, exploratory. At her best she surprises us with runs of images: a man eating birdseed, hiccups, credit card machines, mosquito nets, pigs in blankets, vellum, cotter pin, scratch ‘n sniff. Her strongest poem, “scratch the surface,” holds back on the language play and lets the syntax and diction become more organic to reflect the loss and hope she’s exploring. In other poems, though, she loses the thread of intensity by letting the language take over, by letting cleverness dictate the poem: “it had / previously been determined that the purses would dilate in reluctance / to the analgesic of internment in the pigpen”(“how to root out the normals”). In these moments the poems become more about language, and less about the larger, intense conversation she’s begun with us.

While all three books take the reader on a pleasurable journey, For Your Safety best fulfills the promise the writer brings to the book: each poem is a feast of language, and each poem satisfies our hunger for a deeper, richer look at our current, often disappointing, world.


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