Reviewed by Joannie Stangeland
In Grayling, poet Jenifer Browne Lawrence invites the reader to enter a world between woman and fish, a realm below the surface where being is swimming, sometimes catching, sometimes being caught. These poems both plumb the depths and trail through the water like fingers dangled from a boat.
This play between surface and under the surface—what’s felt or intuited—is braided throughout the book, starting with the first poem, “Casting,” where “her shadow / swam into a fish / spooled from her reel” and later “her legs refused / to fuse into a tail / as planned.” On the surface, the poet is fishing with her father. Under the surface swim questions of identity and security: “Kneel at river’s edge / if the father you love / has been drinking / again.”
Lawrence skirts the narrative, inviting the reader to generate the connections, to make the story. In some poems, the title sets the context while the poem zooms in on the details. “On the Day of Her Father’s Funeral, Six Birds on the Line” goes on to describe a memory of fishing at age six, “nobody / wading to set her free.” “To Moclips with No Ash to Scatter” etches a shoreline where the one mention of death concerns the firs.
“Whose Hair Swings Like a Wind-Coarsened Mane (prelude),” which lopes across the page in three-line indented stanzas, speaks of a wrecked barge making
“a fine barn when the tide was low
shelter for a foal, beachgrass
bedding piled inside, seaweed pawed and popped”
then asks the reader “Who knew / the track would bruise with blood, / the swell of water draw horses out to sea.” Lawrence lets the images stay open, doors through which the reader can plumb his or her own past, and does not explain the track, the wound, or even the horses’ departure, the ocean’s lure.
Readers can look for clues in “Whose Hair Swings Like a Wind-Coarsened Mane (reprise),” but will find no obvious connection. The poem talks about watching, with a sister, a black-and-white movie of a village girl being suffocated by a “ring of white- / hatted women” who “look down at her, each of them / wearing the same unreadable face.” This poem is set in a narrow prose block, and although prose poems came out of the surrealist movement, this is one of the most narrative poems in the book. The unsettling comes from the title—its relationship to the earlier poem and its mysterious association with the rest of the poem.
Other poems speak of a father, his drinking and his death, of a mother, and of becoming a mother. The sister in “The Sister Next to Be Born” is possibly the same sister in “Year of the Dog,” which refers to “the shirt she’d been wearing when / the driver didn’t stop—.” The reader can create the history of this family or let the images stand or race on their own. Either choice fulfills.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 18, Issue 2.
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