Spring 2016, Volume 20

Among the Gorgons by Michelle Boisseau

Review by Bill Neumire

As a high school literature teacher, I am often asked by my students why so many of our books are so much about death. Well, I respond, what else is there but death and what its certitude does to/means for our lives? The complex elegy of Michelle Boisseau’s Tampa Poetry Prize winning Among the Gorgons is composed of several smaller elegies for family, friends, and artists.

Two of the three classical Gorgons were immortal (and Medusa, the third, though killed by the demigod Perseus, was darn close): thus, they embody a powerful allusion for an elegy about the one who lives, the one who survives the deaths of those around her. Boisseau’s work is heavy with allusion, with an erudite sense of study; this is clear from the book’s opening three epigraphs, the first from Emerson reading “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature….Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy.” There is, indeed, sturdiness in survival itself, in absorbing the loss found in these pages and finding a way to catalogue it, organize it, survive it, as the speaker in ‘To a Dying Difficult Man’ reports: “The one staying feels the press / of the space taking the one going / through the final privacy.”

The poems here are frequently very personal elegies, including those for siblings: “Help me, the postcard said. / Help me, from inside the swarm. // When he opened his mouth, / my brother could speak only ocean.” They weave together and often allude, in addition to classical myths, to each other: a word in one poem becomes a phrase or a line in another, or a title or trope in a third. It creates an indelible sense that “No bodies are solid. / We pour her ashes out / and my sister streams a cloud through the water.”

The most impressive aspect in this collection, though, is not its erudition or its little humors and ironies in a sea of eviscerating loss (see: ‘I Ate My Mate’ or ‘92-Year-Old Nude Descending a Staircase’) but rather its confident restraint via taut, rhythmically controlled lines and poems that rarely take up even a whole page. The brevity of ache exudes everywhere, but to cite a quintessential example, ‘Take Your Kids to the Funeral’ starts, “Let them stretch out on the cool pews / and listen to the valves of the church / pump with coughs and foot scrapes” and ends a short ten lines later on the eerie note: “Bring your kids / to the funeral and let us smell their heads.” It’s a book that could seem, at cursory glance, bogged down by a repetitive motif, but the humor and life vary the emotional experience here, and infuse the more personal goodbyes with a quivering force that leaves one affected, shaken, looking out over the “little cemetery / [that] has room for us all.”






BIO: Michelle Boisseau is the author of several previous books of poetry, including A Sunday in God-Years (2009) and Trembling Air (2003, PEN USA finalist). She is also the author of Understory (1996, winner of the Morse Prize) and Private Life (1990). Her university textbook, Writing Poems, initiated by the late Robert Wallace, is now in its eighth edition, with her colleague Hadara Bar-Nadav. Boisseau has twice been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where she is Senior Editor of BkMk Press and Contributing Editor of New Letters.

Among the Gorgons by Michelle Boisseau (Author), Egon Schiele (Illustrator)
University of Tampa Press (March 30, 2016)