Press 53 | 2015 | 90 pages | 978-1941209288
Reviewed by Ayla Maisey
Within the first three poems, McGookey opens the windows to the hurts of her heart; we step into tender infertility and the death of her parents like plunging chest deep into cool water. Stay is an intersection of life and death, but not in the grandiose terms we are accustomed to. Stay is the little things. It’s an interplay of worn love, aching grief, and a recurring anger that McGookey has made into its own character; a presence that is distanced and softened and loved just for being there. McGookey has found romance, or tried to create romance, in the quiet corners of sorrow, sleep, and waking. There is a wanting in her poems and sometimes, if not a wallowing, then a wanting of the wanting, which would be self-indulgent if Kathleen McGookey herself had not acknowledged it in her poem “Letter to My Future Self”: “…Tell me that the mortgage, the Valentine cupcakes for the first grade, the cat’s ashes will fade quicker than I can imagine. Quicker, even, than I’d want.”
In Stay, McGookey is trying to make eye contact with something – the nature of the universe? death? herself? – but can’t ever quite see it, much like looking at the sun. While gray skies and bleak mornings feature throughout the collection, the quality of McGookey’s prose is high and clear and warm, its own kind of sunlight. As in most collections of writing, there are skips and lulls in the fierceness of her writing. Some poems are nearly too pretty, with an almost amateur hopefulness in the tone. Instead of vulnerability, they veer towards a sugary self-awareness.
For the majority of the work, however, McGookey has parted the washes of possums and vine flowers and swallows to distill the experiences of her life with stark sincerity. Much of McGookey’s writing is comprised of prose poetry, with three collections of prose poems and a translation of French poet Georges Godeau’s prose poetry preceding Stay. She has taught creative writing at Hope College, Interlochen Arts Academy, and Western Michigan University. The reader can hear her practiced footsteps, the years of carrying and understanding her parents’ deaths and her childrens’ births rolling out underneath her pen.
In this way, Stay reads like a work of creative nonfiction, a lyric essay of the self and the other and the tension between the two. McGookey asks questions that float and creak like rocking chairs: of who she is to others, of who she is to herself, of the pointedness of words (“may I say this?”), of what any of the hungry possums and dying birds and hospital visits mean. The inflections of her poems are steady, but there is a slightness to them, like an upturned face, or a closed mouth and open eyes.
Stay walks barefoot on the line between “what if” and “here, right now”. Kathleen McGookey has captured the exquisite anguish of being alive while trying to give life to others, and of being alive as others die. To read her poetry is to open a window; stay a while. Let the light in.
Ayla Maisey is from Portland, Oregon, and is currently studying creative nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has been published in Brainchild and Habitat.