Sarah Freligh is the author of A Brief Natural History of an American Girl, winner of the Editor’s Choice award from Accents Publishing in 2012, and Sort of Gone, a book of poems that follows the rise and fall of a fictional pitcher named Al Stepansky. Recent work has been featured on Verse Daily, The Sun Magazine, Brevity, Rattle, Barn Owl Review, burntdistrict, and in the 2011 anthology Good Poems: American Places. Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus suggests that the “only really serious philosophical question . . . is suicide.” Sisyphus is condemned to push a boulder uphill only to see it roll back. In the wake of a loved one’s suicide, the living are left to puzzle over unfathomable loss, the metaphorical rock that they must shoulder in search of the elusive “why.”
In Bloom in Reverse, Teresa Leo moves through and beyond the elliptical why and presents the reader with a how: that is, how do we go on in the face of loss? In poems that are exquisitely crafted and deftly arranged, the book’s four sections journey through the stages of grief, tracing a narrative arc that opens in death and ends with “the living ready to burst/through the dead” (88).
The first section, aptly titled “No,” opens in the aftermath of a friend’s suicide—not merely a friend, but a fellow poet, a confidante, a sister with whom the speaker shared work as well as “talk of the men/we loved who gave us grief” (6). “No” is both the disbelief at the news as well as the denial of the finality of death, the gradual understanding that the telephone and the e-
mails will remain unanswered: “it’s brutal, this wanting to call/and tell, the eleventh kind of abuse” (6-7).
In her cover blurb for Bloom in Reverse, Denise Duhamel refers to the poems as an “honest homage to female camaraderie.” Reading Leo’s work, one is reminded of the poems of Maxine Kumin written in the wake of her friend Anne Sexton’s suicide. In “How It Is,” for example, Kumin not only imagines Sexton’s last day, but imagines rewriting it: “how I would unwind it, paste/it together in a different collage.” In the poem, the day would end not with Sexton “in the death car, idling in the garage,” but with the two friends in “a kitchen place,/with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.”
Like Kumin, Leo’s speaker imagines a series of different outcomes. If there is denial in the book’s first section, there is also bargaining: a lot of “if” and “what if,” both explicit and implicit. “I would go willingly,” says the speaker in the opening poem “Confession,” “if it meant you got to stay in the house/a little longer” (3). Two poems later, the speaker ponders what she could have done to keep her friend alive: “if I could/I’d have planted a bed of flowers in her head/to elongate the game” (5).
The final poem in the section, “After Twelve Months, Someone Tells Me It’s Time to Join the Living,” suggests a move toward acceptance, though—as the title suggests—it’s not of the speaker’s own volition, though she insists, in the poem’s opening lines “And I have, or will, I’m not sure which” (23). What follows is an exquisitely crafted argument not only with the unnamed “someone,” but seemingly with an equivocating self. There’s a hell-bent energy to this poem, a furious forward motion created by fourteen stanzas of enjambed couplets as well as the insistent repetend of “I am,” “I can,” “I will.” Though addressed to “you,” i.e., the lost friend, there’s a sense here that the speaker is finally understanding there will be no answer to the calls and e-mails. In the poem’s concluding lines, she puts herself in the place of whatever quarry a soaring hawk has in its claws:
I imagine its last thoughts,
if it is capable of thinking,
would be what it’s like to be airborne,
without the constraints of gravity,
free of the thing that fixes us here,
because maybe it’s exactly the thing
we can’t release that keeps us
on this side, among the living (24).
In the second section, “Wolves in Shells,” the poems gradually turn away from death and face another kind of loss—the dissolution of a long-term relationship. Because the friend/confidante is gone, the speaker enlists the reader as both confidante and occasional fellow survivor as she journeys through the break-up. In the poem “Constant,” for example, there is no “I” or “you,” only “a man” and “a woman.” It opens:
There’s a certain kind of rage
reserved for a woman
who finds the man she loves
in front of a computer
with his hand in his pants,
the body like an animal cornered (38).
It’s an effective point of view for both speaker and reader. The objective third person vantage point allows the speaker the necessary distance to be an observer to her own rage and pain. By locating event in “a man” and “a woman,” rather than the more personal “I,” the emotion is both shared and experienced universally.
Similarly, the poem “Online Dating” also locates itself in a third person, but through an extended metaphor in which “the men/ look for women the way women shop for shoes” (59). It’s both a humorous and dead-on observation of the virtual meat market of dating sites, a poem that is echoed in the next section with “And Then You”:
Not through any of the usual methods—
not online dating, not at the bar,
though a bar was involved (75).
This “you”—the last good man, as suggested in the title of the following poem—is the man the speaker eventually marries. The suggestion of a “happily ever after,” however, is tempered by what precedes it: the hard-earned truth that the more powerful the love, the more painful the loss. And yet in musing about her husband’s eyes and the prospect of “these eyes/being forever closed to me,” the speaker concludes that:
what would be worse
than not every seeing them again
is not being able to recall them with clarity (“Horseshoe Crabs,” 86).
The ability to remember and to render that memory “with clarity” is ultimately the beating heart of this wonderful collection.
Everybody wears denim. A skirt embroidered
with cornflowers for Dollbaby. Jackets
for the boys. A hair bow for Thunderthighs
who flaps her arms above her head to scare
off the scrub jay that flits between her ponytail
and Bigmouth’s shoulder. Foureyes and Dogbreath
have masked their faces with the flag of South
Carolina. It all reminds Dollbaby of Horseface
that time he observed Tuesday tea with Lady Grey.
Egghead signals Thunderthighs with his laser
pen by waving four hundred and seventy
three nanometers across the stage. In her best
mock Joni, Thunderthighs begins to sing: “Dollbaby,
eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeew. Poems are like tattoos.”
Once, awake in a dark room
four stories above Brooklyn,
I heard, clearly, the voice
of a subway conductor
urging his passengers to be patient,
they would continue soon.
It was late – a light drizzle,
streets deserted, F train buried
deep beneath Church Avenue.
I shook the woman beside me
to ask if she had heard it too,
but all she grasped
was the bell of the doors closing,
the soft rumble
of the going away.
Early morning claymation of birds clogging the backyard,
low gargle of mourning dove–
Trees are vaults to fit into an easy second, they pass us in swells of untightening.
Touch for us, wandering for them: an eye unclutches.
Inside the vacant TV screen an arm raises against–
How it turns into a rip before it can turn back into itself.
And the slender thing raging in the unused room.
There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.
Alongside a sandy highway, perishability thinks.
When it acts it leaves its mind behind.
Birds sing in intervals with each other. My mother may step out of the shower an egret.
Note: Title and italicized parts taken from The Art of War, Sun Tzu, 500 B.C., translated by Lionel Giles.
At Gray Ghost, West Point, I’m shut upstairs where Maggie Lunty locks me in her bedroom with her, says she’ll never allow me to leave, will keep me there beyond Christmas, beyond when we go to fourth grade, when she gets married.
She fields me when I lean toward the door, blocks me when I step.
I’m determined I won’t contact, keep patience as my best language, though panic shakes a red banner. Speak slowly, watch for weariness.
My parents will miss me, I insist, and she says with ferocious authority that they will not, so sure it would almost be rampant comfort to believe her.
Her will spreads multilateral, not contained by the room. She’ll kill me before she’ll let me go–
I know she can only slap me, though somehow I can imagine Captain Lunty killing me, clapping me closed in the accordion of his palm in a simple, regulation clap.
What will happen come dinner time, I ask, and she says she’ll keep me locked up, later sneak me water in her squirt gun,
pellets of meatloaf in her blue pencil-sharpener globe.