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Angela Ball

The New York School Diaspora (Part Twenty-One): Jennifer Grotz [by Angela Ball]

The Crows


There must have been greetings
that rhymed with each of them,

but now she only remembers
the goodbyes, the countless times

they stood together speechless
under a starry meal of snow,

crows congregating above them
in bare winter branches, all through

the desperate sadness at the end,
one of them still madly in love

while the other admitted defeat,
taking turns as if exchanging

a heavy suitcase. And they were after all
always traveling. Somehow never at home.

He loved her in libraries and parking lots,
in cemeteries and cafes. She loved him

in the held breath of elevators, in stairwells
and trains. He loved her in daylight. But also

in the dark. She loved him most at the end
of the day, telling a story at dinner

while waving his fork and knife. He was her
never husband and she his never wife.

There must have been greetings
that rhymed with each of them.

All along, though they couldn’t hear it,
before they had stopped being lovers,

before they had even started,
back when they were two people leaving

a restaurant in summer’s dusk,
the crows were growing busy, numerous,

there was one coming to land
on every branch of every tree, once

the thumbless black hands of their wings
had finished stroking the malleable sky,

all along, though they couldn’t hear it,
the birds had been winging

their silent applause
for the love that was going to be, then was.

--Jennifer Grotz

Jennifer Grotz is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Window Left Open, and translator of three books from the French and Polish, most recently Everything I Don’t Know, the selected poems of Jerzy Ficowski, co-translated with Piotr Sommer. She teaches at the University of Rochester and directs the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences. Still Falling, her fourth book of poems, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2023.

Jennifer Grotz jpg 1 copy

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

The New York School Diaspora (Part Twenty-One): Jennifer Grotz

Jennifer’s Grotz’s mysterious, generous poem, “The Crows,” is parable—but more; the crows, its totems, but more. Reading it, we are pulled in two directions. There is much to say, there is nothing to say—the direction of the ordinary, the direction of the holy. The poem’s almost-refrain, “There must have been greetings / that rhymed with each of them” suggests a Blakean song of innocence in which the world is right, is true; but also suggests the calls of crows announcing something dead and ready to eat; and Ted Hughes’s landmark book, Crow, the dark parable he made of marriage.

The poem dramatizes Robert Frost’s useful dictum, which applies so well to the New York School of Poets and their diaspora: poetry must possess either outer humor and inner seriousness or outer seriousness and inner humor. Dead seriousness is powerless to move us. That’s why the late Stephen Sondheim, in his wrenching (though often over-acted: Judi Dench sings it best) song of lost love, calls for clowns.

The poem’s two characters are isolated, as in parables and fairy tales:

     they stood together speechless

     under a starry meal of snow,

     crows congregating above them

     in bare winter branches, all through

     the desperate sadness at the end,

     one of them still madly in love

     while the other admitted defeat,

     taking turns as if exchanging

     a heavy suitcase.

Dark humor informs the mechanical exchanging of roles, the absurd simile of the suitcase.

The poem partakes, also, of Wallace Stevens’ “mind of winter,” in which silence has the most say.

Yet at its heart there’s a beautiful fairy tale in which each lover’s action is answered variously but exactly by the other’s:

     He loved her in libraries and parking lots,

     in cemeteries and cafes.  She loved him

     in the held breath of elevators, in stairwells

     and trains. He loved her in daylight. But also

     in the dark. She loved him most at the end

     of the day, telling a story at dinner

     while waving his fork and knife. He was her

     never husband and she his never wife.

How exact, that “held breath of elevators.” The last sentence of the interlude, with its nursery-style clinching rhyme, pronounces both the perfection of the moment and the disaster hovering over the couple from and, indeed, before their beginning. Arrive it does, with a suggestion of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds:

     the crows were growing busy, numerous,

     there was one coming to land

     on every branch of every tree

     that introduces the poem’s final trajectory with this most lovely, most chilling couplet: “once / / the thumbless black hands of their wings / had finished stroking the malleable sky,” finally declaring the ascendency of fate, the force that ever and always operates in silence:

     all along, though they couldn’t hear it,

     the birds had been winging

     their silent applause

     for the love that was going to be, then was.

It is the last small phrase of Jennifer Grotz’s The Crows that pronounces victory not just for fate, but for love. Love “was”—existed, held sway. The small word, a weak verb’s past tense, declares both loss and possession, two forces that equally hold us—until, at last, they fade.

--Angela Ball


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