Grief Suite by Bobbi Lurie
(CW Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2010)
“To Look Death in the Eye”
Bobbi Lurie’s third book of poems is sometimes hard to read.
To look honestly at Death, that’s how it must be.
From its sterile hospitals rooms and invasive procedures to the family secrets and slow declines that scream and whisper as they bubble, ooze, and bleed, Grief Suite takes the reader on a journey through guilt, anger, denial, accusation, and regret—aspects of the “five stages” so many counselors and workshop leaders talk about. But after experiencing this collection of free-verse and prose poetry, there is little question that, when it comes to Grief, nothing is as cut and dry enough to be categorized as neatly as we want.
Grief must have its due. It demands of us our souls.
The collection begins with “Traveling North,” a poem that uses strings of prosic image-phrases that call to mind Kerouac’s Mexico City works and Burroughs’s cut-up writing. The punctuation works like a drum, beating the battle-rhythm before the carnage. (In a later poem she writes: “I fragment short prayers, picking at the worded wounds.”)
The poem as prayer is most clearly present in “This Amputated Place is My Soul, Lord,” operating more as mantra–meditation than a traditional Christian invocation:
“Lord, preserve me, Lord, I am faltering
Lord, I am Lost in a skull of thoughts”
Death does not center just upon the body—it infuses its razor-blade judgments in every aspect of our lives. Poems such as “Codependent Nation” dance with Death as a spectre tangled up in an essence of Love that is dark, dangerous, and unromantic. The speaker is represented by the small “i” as she speaks of how she “met my first love/at the vending machine/in the mental hospital.” The poem, which runs half a dozen pages, keeps the reader off-kilter and engaged with its varying rhythms, line breaks, and use and absence of punctuation. The imagery is unencumbered by typical mechanisms that might clutter it up or make it more palatable.
There are stories here that the authors needs to share, and we all need to hear (“In print she says every/thing/In life she’s contrite”).
The poems of Grief Suite are not obsessed with Death. They are not Gothic or morose. There’s a subtle sense of Life and Light at work in all of their ever-deepening darkness. Purple and yellow are often mentioned, as well as scents like perfume.
The title poem, “Grief Suite,” begs numerous readings due to its length and complexity. The reader gets a clear sense of the Process grief entails, the back and forth between Past and Present, warring and reconciling with themselves now that Death has taken the Future forever away.
The poem details the dying and death of a mother, an event that brings out of dusty closets and long-locked drawers the childhood memories and present contentions in the mother–daughter, mother–sons, sons–daughter relationships. It reads like a diary, so the reader is positioned as a Voyeur, whether invited or not. There is much here that will be familiar to anyone who has experienced a similar “death event” in their own family, especially if one sibling stayed behind to care for the parent while the rest went off into the world.
Two of the poems, “Once My Heart was Wide and Loved the World” and “Tossed Out Box of Treasured Possessions” function like sutras in the form of two-line meditations and dialogues:
“Black spots of cancer.
Like a small boy pointing a magnifying glass to an insect.
Interested in the way the body burns.”
(from “Once My Heart”)
“And what will you do with the rest of your possessions?
I will never collect possessions again.”
(from “Tossed Out Box”)
The final three poems, “Rasa,” “Waking in Old Age,” and “Soft Fibers Adorn the Diminishing Landscape” are beautiful, disturbing poems with stark language that gives us only flickers of insight, like the lone swinging bulb in an otherwise lightless room. Nurses bat about their “crude humor” as they joke about the patient’s incontinence… and threaten with their detached demeanor even worse:
“…if they were to pull the drapes around me they could beat me blue
with bruises blooming daily on my body anyway.” (“Waking in Old Age,”)
Grief Suite does not promise Hope or an easy prescription for getting through the loss; its poems instead tell us that it takes immense Will to not give in to Death.
For it’s our Will that makes us live when at last the Grief has gone.
Joey Madia is a playwright, actor, and educator who writes in a wide variety of genres and styles. His poetry, essays, and short stories have been widely published and have earned him several awards. His first novel, Jester-Knight, was published in 2009. He is the founding editor of www.newmystics.com, an art and literary site. He is the Artistic Director/Resident Playwright of New Mystics Arts, Inc. which is home to two social justice theatre companies (in West Virginia and New Jersey) and Resident Playwright at Youth Stages, LLC. His 12 plays for young audiences have been produced across the United States and his series of books on using theatre in the classroom are helping teachers redefine learning. He is currently adapting the award-winning Sad, Mad, Glad books by Jim Strawn and Chuck Stump into a touring musical for elementary students. As a teaching-artist he has worked with, taught, and mentored thousands of students in both theatre and creative writing and he has spoken at many schools and national conferences. He specializes in working with young students and performers to develop new works in the classroom and for public performance as well as helping teachers integrate the Arts into their classrooms.