A Rank, Bleak Devotion
That violence lies in
writing is not so far
from the truth. This is the animal I knew before
I started, whose neck I wished
to rub my own against.
She brings the word mercy into the field.
Her mouth staggers over
the counting, the one
and one and one of bodies soaked in oil. In the blue
of gathered facts it
feels the same: splattered
mouth, bloody bulb of the sign. I keep practicing
the problem, To get
back at, to get back at, the letters
written on a field of dark paper, disorder.
I make lists. I peel
onions beneath my skin
and push them out of me. I wake up
in the morning and
realize that a sex dream
can also be a sexual assault dream. Mercy, healing—
these are words I’ve
never used in a poem before.
Can I write into her, she whose own wool
touches mine? A blunter
way to say: am I a body
who depends on other bodies? I make lists.
A loved posture can also
be a speech act.
This is how it begins. What will seep will seep.
North Georgia poet Gale Marie Thompson’s second full-length collection, Helen or My Hunger (Portland OR: YesYes Books, 2020) [see my review of such here], I was very excited to see her latest: Mountain Amnesia: Poems (Fort Collins CO: The Center for Literary Publishing, 2023), winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry. As final judge Felicia Zamora writes of the collection: “Mountain Amnesia stretches thin the fibrous tissues of grief that inhabit the body, mind, and ether of existence from burrowing traumas. These lamentations expose the weight of abuse, longing and loss, unanswered prayers, and an inescapable natural law: ‘this I know: that even evil men die.’” There’s such an unflinching sharpness to these poems, and Thompson’s is a fierce and precise first-person lyric of violence, dark survival and a weighted grief. “In the time it took to produce / this sentence,” she writes, to open the poem “Turnover,” “the spinal // shadow of my house has leaned / its wet angle over the yard // so completely, a massacre / so small—yet loved, like // the family lick of the herd— [.]” In this third full-length collection, Thompson continues her engagement through densely-packed lyrics that explore dark paths, dark threads: a thread I’ve increasingly seen across American poetry these past few years, whether exploring titles by YesYes Books generally (including recent titles by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach [see my review here], Alycia Pirmohamed [see my review here] and Allison Blevins [see my review here]), or titles such as Jenny Molberg’s The Court of No Record (Louisiana State University Press, 2023) [see my review of such here] and Claire Schwartz’s Civil Service (Minneapolis MN: Graywolf Press, 2022) [see my review of such here]. “There must be an aphorism here / about thunder and discipline,” she writes, as part of “The Law of Jocasta,” the poem Felicia Zamora quotes from as part of her blurb, “how its roll and hone engraves / from inside. Even Queen Elizabeth / once remade herself a virgin / in this soggy, pink light. Because / this I know: that even evil men die. / It’s constitutional. It’s the law.”
Set as a quartet of numbered groupings of poems, Thompson’s poems don’t merely examine, but simultaneously dismantle and reassemble; one might describe the poems in this collection as as exploring the dark shadows of human experience. “March killed so much this year / just like every year. I hear that death exists,” she writes, as part of the poem “No Witness,” “I hear it and I hear it, / but I keep my mouth away from the wind, / I keep its noises muddied in the woods.” It is a book of survival mechanisms, witness and deep grief, and composing these pieces as a way to push through to the other end, or at least, as close as might be possible. As part of her December 2021 ’12 or 20 questions’ interview, she describes her then-work-in-progress, a manuscript she responds via email is an earlier iteration of Mountain Amnesia:
I’ve been working on this
manuscript called Dummy Prayer for a number of years now, and new poems
come in each year and change its face a bit more each time. During the pandemic
I’ve been hiking and reading in the mountains around where I live, and even
before the pandemic I was living a pretty isolated life here in North Georgia.
Over the last few years, I’ve had a few friends pass away unexpectedly, as well
as some other losses and oblivions and changes that (like always) have affected
my relationship with the world. So, all of that together means that my poems
are very much influenced by the messiness of nature in Appalachia, along with
the messiness of loneliness and grief, of a longing for connection. In these
poems, nature is constantly working on its own disappearance. The rotting
plants and animal bones and organic matter are housed in the same world as the
ramps and bellflowers on the verge of opening. All this to say, I’ve been
thinking quite a bit about how we connect with each other, or, to quote
Adrienne Rich, “the grit of human arrangements and relationships: how we are
with each other.” The frictions in communicating public and private experiences
to each other. And so I was thinking about these arrangements, how we keep each
other alive, and that’s a huge part of Dummy Prayer.