Thursday, March 25, 2010

“Meditations on Death”: A Review of Bobbi Lurie’s Grief Suite

(forthcoming from CW Books, May 2010)

Bobbi Lurie writes poetry that hurts.

Grief Suite follows the decline and deaths of its subjects with unflinching honesty. From the sterile hospitals rooms and invasive procedures that fill them to the exposure of decaying family dynamics through the course of illness and its aftermath, Lurie takes the reader on a journey through guilt, anger, denial, accusation—aspects of the “five stages” so many counselors talk about. But after reading this collection of free-verse and prose poetry, the truth seems to be that when it comes to Grief, nothing is cut and dry enough to be categorized.

It must be simply lived. Or, truer still—survived.

The collection begins with “Traveling North,” a prose poem that uses strings of image-phrases that call to mind Kerouac’s Mexico City works and Burroughs’s cut-up style. 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 a mantra-meditation than a traditional Christian invocation.

Death, as it is so often, is tangled up in an essence of Love that is dark, dangerous, and unromantic, as best represented in the poem “Codependent Nation.” 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 Lurie needs to tell, and we need to hear (“In print she says every/thing/In life she’s contrite”).

I was particularly intrigued by the subtle senses at work in all of the darkness of the poems. 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. Like the earlier poems, it again felt as though there is a crushing weight that only these words can lift.

The poem details the dying and death of a mother, an event which brings to Light and Life the childhood memories and present contentions in the mother–daughter, mother–sons, sons–daughter relationships. It reads like a diary, and the reader is very much Voyeur, invited or not. There is much here that will be familiar to anyone who has experienced a similar death event in their 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 resulting in a power of imagery that recalls the lone swinging bulb in an otherwise darkened room. Nurses bring their “crude humor” as they joke about the patient’s incontinence… Although we know they are searching for self-defense, it is disturbing nonetheless.

Grief Suite is beautiful and light in all of its ugliness and dark.

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