Poetry Book Review for The Burnings, Gary Worth Moody, Three: A Taos Press, 2019; Girl, Veronica Golos, Three: A Taos Press, 2019.
No publisher of poetry does what they do without sacrifice. Andrea Watson, the publisher of Three: A Taos Press, deserves a bow, having just crossed the publishing threshold of her 25th book. Over the course of a nine-year evolution, Watson has forged a press that unites poets from Colorado to Albuquerque and beyond, opening a corridor for conversation that once seemed geographically hamstrung, cut off. Among the stellar class of 2019 are two standouts: Gary Worth Moody’s The Burnings and Girl by Veronica Golos.
Gary Worth Moody’s fourth book, The Burnings, is a “strangering” of language in the best sense, and Moody, a maximalist, is no stranger to chaos—“chaosmos,” Hélène Cixous, the French feminist philosopher, would call it—his psychic lens gravitating toward what is most gruesome to contemplate: the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, a lynching in Texas, a plane crash on a Sioux City airstrip—various incidents of accident, violation and vindication with origins in human passion and its burning. Moody often chooses to write poems in persona (an orchard tender at the Inquisition, a racist vigilante in Texas), allowing the speakers’ own perspective to belie the speaker’s true motives. Moody’s maximalist feats of language act as a correlative of the human spirit, seeming to rise or hover above these dystopian visions like smoke, Moody’s poems enacting, as Celan describes in his Meridian speech, language’s ability to survive “what happened.”
The challenge of maximalism is one of creating tension through polarizing opposites, through manipulating assonance and consonance, by cantilevering phrases and figures, and making artful arrangement on the page, all of which Moody achieves with masterful balance and to astonishing effect. In his poem to James Wright, “What Did James Wright Feel,” a poem that speculates upon World Trade Center occupants throwing themselves to their deaths and their thoughts, Moody links the Wright poem “To a Blossoming Pear” by the sole thread of a Callery pear tree that survives the terrorist attacks on 9/11. In the Wright poem, an old man accosts the narrator for some sexual favor: “He paused on a street in Minneapolis/And stroked my face./ Give it to me, he begged. /I’ll pay you anything.// I flinched.” With what one comes to realize is Moody’s signature, a prismatic perspective, this narrator muses upon the odds of moral rectitude in extremis:
“Did those who fell remember the way cock, lip, finger, cunt, or tongue first nests around, or into a stranger’s/ sex, before the slow spun stars unraveled the light/clinging to backs of gyring/birds, starved for the damaged/fruit, only edible after killing-/frost renders even the best of us/less than human?” The poem invokes Yeats’ “A Second Coming” with its allusion to gyring birds and questions whether any of us might not be reduced to the state of Wright’s old man who, in “the unendurable snow,” is “so near death that he will take/ Any love he can get.” Where does one’s verdict fall—where does Moody’s fall—in the swirling tumult for individuation, the tocsin of lust, in the sacrilege, in the sway, of human sacrifice? The poems seem to speak for “the secret pizzicato/stitch that tongues make/across taut flesh,” Adam and Eve’s rationale for their disobedience in the Garden, this burning intrinsic, Moody seems to argue, to our human nature.
A member of Tupelo Press’s core faculty at their semiannual conference in Truchas, New Mexico, Veronica Golos has always advocated for justice for the oppressed through her poetry. From her inaugural collection A Bell Buried Deep, winner of the Nicholas Roerich Prize, to Rootworks, her epistolary pastiche of the “lost” writings of abolitionists Mary Day Brown and John Brown, Golos has written primarily in persona up until Girl. Now with greater personal transparency, Golos draws from experiences that appear to be drawn from sources closer to home: the resilience and vulnerability of a girl growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, this her most self-revelatory volume to date. With the poem “RougedWoman: Prophecy,” Golos’s volume opens:
What I know is more than thorn
And thistle, whistling through
An oak forest, trees large as barns.
What I know is Wolf,
And that cannot be reckoned,
For I have been inside
Him, and have seen through His gold eyes
And smelled the world.
The he-wolf always contains a girl, writes Golos. A wolf can take a hand in an instant. As Tsvetaeva says, “However much one feeds a wolf, it will always return to the forest.” The wolf of the rouged woman, a name with intimations of red-light districts and streetwalkers, who is he? Is he a pimp? Is he patriarchy incarnate? Is he God? A girl has little choice in Golos’s world but to be consumed, to be inside Him. Golos’ imagination cannot rest in the private lyric; her girl stands “as Icarus link/between the uncoupling of worlds,” Golos’ child visited by gods who grant her wishes, the ability to fly, magical gifts that both protect her from harm and set her apart, much like the raped prophetess, Cassandra, of Greek mythology.
In Golos’ poem “I Imagine the Gods Saying, We Will Make it Up to You. We Will Give You Three Wishes,” the speaker talks about her relationship to her divine protectors:
“Girl,” they’d say,
“turn this corner, now, and be safe.” Most
times I did what they prompted, made my way though
the warren of my mother’s madness....
My girl body, in my yellow duck
pajamas stayed sleeping on the bed, of course, in case
I was looked for; but the I
of me, the one the gods whispered
warnings to, rose out of my girl
body, and through the window
floated along the rooftops.
It was a little joy I was allowed, and I told
The poem invokes the firal as flyer, Helene Cixous’ voleur, the one who is both flyer and refugee, who lives in a Hell’s Kitchen hotel room where her mother and she sleep, divided by a single chair. Golos’ girl manages to speak and survive both physical and emotional violence, despite all the death-bringing of her mother’s madness, a molestation at thirteen—she a kind of Persephone in reverse. So generous is Golos’ empathy that she cannot help but see the other, others like her, everywhere, hear their voices coming up from the ground, knowing that seeing and acknowledging their violation is a kind of salvation. Not only is “Inverse: a Ghazal” an elegiac encomium for “the pale-lit girl” but the poem showcases Golos’ technical mastery of form:
You pale-lit girl, gathered at dawn; I saw you.
A pearl in our mother’s see-through anger.
One father’s daughter, skin and shadow; I saw you.
I licked you, to gird you against disaster.
Disoriented light. Dark mouth, but still, I saw you.
She spoke—our mother—crazed to alabaster.
The mystic Simone Weil calls prayer an act of “unmixed attention” and Garcia Lorca distinguishes between the duende, the muse, and the angel, calling the muse “a figure who dictates and prompts from afar” and the angel “a dazzling light-filled being who flies overhead.” Golos’ poems are all duende, all lit from the ground up, for those buried in a graveyard, prayers to those who survived and those who did not, their ghost voices overheard as she trespasses on the land of the Taos morada. Reading Golos’ Girl, one always feels haunted and is moved to tread lightly by Golos’ empathy for the ghostly presence of the oppressed. They are always with her. One thing is never in question throughout this book: the magnitude of Golos’ artistry in service of her lost girls.
Lise Goett’s poetry has earned wide acclaim, including The Paris Review Discovery Award, the PEN Southwest Book Award in Poetry, the Robert H. Winner Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the Barnard New Women Poets Prize for her first collection, Waiting for the Paraclete (Beacon Press, 2002). She lives in Taos, New Mexico.