Sunday, February 22, 2015

What I'm Reading: The River Won't Hold You by Karin Gottshall

37º ~ warming to 40º under white skies, the cloud cover solid but not gray ~ we await the snow predicted to fall this evening

While Karin Gottshall's book, The River Won't Hold You, is not necessarily a "project" book, the poems within it do follow something of a chronological trajectory. In the early poems, the speaker recalls moments of girlhood and adolescence, coming of age, the onset of menstruation, the first sexual encounters. Later, the poems transition to those of a young adult, a woman making her way into later, older poems, all the while with key moments from her formative years peeking through. If there are "project" themes in the book, they are the speaker's parents, the desire for companionship at the deepest levels, and the presence of water, sometimes as a river, sometimes as rain or snow, in a few poems, the ocean. Overall, the book emits the weightiness of longing and loss, momentarily alleviated with joy. In other words: life.

The thing I most admire about Gottshall's work is her ability to be straightforward, plainspoken, but to still make poetry that is alive with sound and image. For example, when introducing the father figure that will show up periodically through the book, Gottshall writes that he "was a kind of Noah--all resolve and solitude, / cabinetry and salt" (from "Forecast," the first poem in the book). Listen to those ohs. First, the "oh" made soft by the "ah" in Noah; then, the mournful, repeated "ol" in resolve and solitude; and finally, the snapping consonants in cabinetry and salt. So the nature of the speaker's relationship to her father is subtly conveyed to the attentive reader through sound. In image, the father is akin to Noah, a patriarchal savior associated with water; however, that image becomes much more nuanced later in the book.

The River Won't Hold You is a book filled with the speaker's longing, a longing caused in part by the false constructions of fairy tales and female myths. In "Eve," Gottshall begins, "All I had was the doe's rib bone-- / ... // but I talked to her like she was whole, / could hear. I was seventeen. It was a way I had / of praying, I think." Following right on the heels of "Eve" is "Once." It begins:

I won't start with once
upon a time. Because that's the whole

story isn't it, lovely as she was
with her hair like honey? She bled

alone on the bed when he'd left
and the queen set her to work threading

needles in the dark.

Shakespeare's female characters also make an appearance. In the poem "Pretty Stories," Gottshall reimagines it this way: "Ophelia, in her flip-flops, writes her paramour's name / against the dusk with the spitting tip of a sparkler wand." As these images add up throughout the book, the reader understands the speaker as searching for a way to move through the world as a woman. That searching is deepened by explorations of grief. As the speaker struggles to understand what it is she wants out of the world, she must also deal with the facts of death, as we all must.

Yet, with these themes woven through every poem, The River Won't Hold You is not a book that left me heavy with sadness. Rather, the poems take a matter of fact stance, often including brief snips of wry humor to offset the weight of opening oneself to the full human experience of love and loss. Even now, the poems are calling to me to revisit them for the hard-earned wisdom they contain.


Molly said...

I really enjoyed this book, too -- and that Noah line, especially "all cabinetry and salt" is one of my favorite from the book!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Mine, too!