Review of If You What by Melissa Goodrich

Welcome to Suburban Diaspora’s blog. Every Monday we’ll be shedding a spotlight on independent fiction, poetry, music, and video games. The selections may be new or old, but all selections will be available for purchase with links at the end end of the review. This week we look at the poetry chapbook If You What by Melissa Goodrich, published by 4th & Verse in 2012.

Melissa Goodrich’s chapbook If You What comprises language play that’s both intellectual and embodied. The poems offer a feminist resistance to the reductionism of the historical mind-body split, not merely bringing language back to the body (or the body back into language), but presenting a language that writes through the body, that minds the body. Winner of the inaugural 4th & Verse Chapbook Prize, the collection bravely seeks a mutual lexicon and forms for both sense and sensation in the liminal spaces Goodrich’s writing creates as it refuses divisive binary separations of mind and body, of reason and emotion. The first poem “Below” invites the reader into the consequent “melodrama of seeing is splitting” through the eyes of a boy looking up from where he has fallen from a swing:

The trees repel

with bronze, late evening and a rumor
of red leaves pedaling through the yard.
Frost making fists

around the fence and fuck it, this hurts, the back on the real
cold ground. He is feeling rounded like dark
soft lead, vivid

as silhouettes, he will lie here awhile. He will not be dead. […]

The boy will both “lie here awhile” and “not be dead.” He rejects the temptation to presume catastrophe (he knows this will not kill him), but he also acknowledges that “fuck it, this hurts,” an embodied acknowledgement that aptly precedes the speaker’s exclamation three stanzas later:

[…] Welcome
to your body! a free thing set
in a window the stressed glass holds, a mark over a vowel

To live embodied, the poem suggests, is to recognize both the pain and the resilience that constitute survival. Even the body itself is fraught with contradictions, both “a free thing” and something that’s “set.” This contradiction is symbolically evoked earlier in the poem when the boy hangs his heart:

on a rack, it means

it means nothing! […]

Goodrich’s masterful use of the stanza break here allows the speaker to illustrate two simultaneous oppositional assertions: both “free” and “set,” the heart and the body mean and mean nothing at once, a contradiction that extends from the boy’s body and sensation to his understanding, and to the language itself that limns his experience, which also both “means” and “means nothing.”

In the final poem of If You What, “Watch Stopped Sort of Prophetically on the Plane,” Goodrich re-presents the reader with spatial imagery reminiscent of that seen through the perspective of the boy on his back in the yard below his swing set in “Below.” The poem observes “the low-ceiling sky you can’t/fly through” and, in its closing image, “the bouquet of flowers you carry/blooms down,” both echoing the inverted perspective that opens the collection. Between these images, the speaker presents a visceral meditation on an airplane engine:

very animal the way it’s crouched beside us, very
animal the way water

sobs to boil the lobster, the sob of the shell
coming off.

the shell of us is still

on the tarmac so long it could be Christmas,
even the airport is a dove

disappearing into the silk sleeve, kiss into
the cuff. and you’re sore.

Here Goodrich evokes the American female poetic tradition of what Gilbert and Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic call “imagery of entrapment.” The boiling lobster shell is reminiscent of what Gilbert and Gubar point to in the examples of “Emily Dickinson’s haunted chambers,” “H.D.’s tightly shut sea-shells,” and “Sylvia Plath’s grave-caves.” In Goodrich’s poem, the boiled shell does signify freedom, escape, but much like the body in “Below,” a “free thing” which is also “set,” the speaker in this poem says that “the shell of us is still,” a stillness that suggests that although it has been shed, something of it remains as a reminder of the body it housed, a residue, a haunting.

The poems in If You What are all haunted by this language, a palimpsestic and self-reflexive language that sees its own ghosts, that observes its own residue. Goodrich both frees and sets the bodies that populate these poems—simultaneously palpable and ethereal—limning, lining, and minding the body of work that is If You What.

If You What is available on 4th & Verse’s website.

Review by Billie Tadros

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