Yesterday I taught The Rite of Spring and Jonah Lehrer’s excellent essay on Stravinsky from his first book Proust Was a Neuroscientist. It’s about how difficult it is for the brain to accept new sounds even when those new sounds are the only sounds that make us feel. Every time I teach it I can’t help thinking of the great poetry that goes neglected by publishers year after year perhaps for the same reason. We are pattern-loving, meaning-making creatures. That stuff makes us happy. Not least because we depend on it for survival. When we can’t recognize a familiar pattern of sounds, our brains and bodies revolt. Our pupils dilate, our blood pressure rises…we freak and we feel, and for the most part, we don’t want to do that.
My favorite book of poetry from the last several years isn’t a book. It’s a manuscript—a book length poem called The Palisades by Gillian Kiley, a spacious, dynamic meditation that mines every register of grief, occupying it all with a tremendous wingspan and exploring its terrible incommunicability. In that regard, the poem becomes about the inability to communicate the most private, vulnerable parts of ourselves, especially in this speedy culture that seems intent not to give us the time and space to feel, let alone articulate those strange feelings:
People will be afraid to talk to you
if you insist on remaining humid
and alert to detail.
It’s through elliptical, unflinching, and sustained discussion of our inability to convey these deeper hidden feelings that Kiley manages to do so.
between any two sovereign nations
is also the point of contact.
The poem responds to her father’s death, and part of that response is a mid-life reckoning. The speaker asks how has she been of use? Did a tragic sense of decorum keeping her from loving deep and far enough?
I remember feeling so lucky
to hear the old stories.
To me it seems the speaker goes as far into death with the loved one as it can go and because it is death and things become impersonal in that territory, that speaker feels like all of us.
In some zones, the rain that came
was an almost unnoticeable quiet,
words that never broke
on the tongue.
I am guessing this book hasn’t been published because it’s a book-length poem and about grief. Grief isn’t cool, and Kiley’s unsentimental treatment of it doesn’t fit neatly into any camp or category of poetry we’ve seen before. Besides, who wants to feel sad? Well, I do. Really and truly. It makes me feel human by making me feel close to other humans. First Kiley and then the rest of you.
Throughout the book, there is not only sadness but rage, a rage for separateness and a desperate yearning for distance from the event--the relief of perspective. And then there is all the intelligence that was used to overcome that rage and sadness.
To give someone advice
is to show a complete lack of respect
for that person’s God-given ability
to make mistakes.
In addition, you sound like an asshole.
The person I want to speak to is dead.
You are in comparison, a smudge.
He is history.
My half-crazed sister
put the ashes of her dog in a tea tin
and buried it under the grass by the headstone.
I am a dog belly up and writhing.
I hate dogs
And the notion that the grieving
need anything but protection.
A higher storey would enlarge my vista.
but for now I spread the city before me
The materials of my pleasure
include take-out Chinese
and new ways to drape myself.
Vanity burnishes the lack like sun on dung.
I feel like throwing up my arms
and shouting out things of unheard-of savagery,
exchanging words with the higher mysteries,
proclaiming to the vast spaces of empty matter
the existence of a new expansive personality.
What else could be wanted?
Oh dead highway. The thought turning out until—oh—
Oh, borrowing, borrowing neighbor,
burrowing in, forgetting that all they own
is the space next to you.
When did my palm become the place to inscribe so many names?
Toward the end of the book the voice softens. The speaker finds a book “so much like [herself]—[she] felt that [she] had been happy / and that [she] could be happy again.” The Palisades is that book for me—not that I need to be lifted out of grief at the moment, only in that the book is so much like me. It will be so much like you too, probably, if it ever gets published. Earlier in the book, the speaker remarks on how healthy the animals are “that emerge from the dark barn.” At the end of the book, the speaker becomes one of those animals emerging and we get to feel what the sun feels like after all that darkness.