“According to gestalt theory/the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” Matthew Gellman writes in the title poem of his chapbook Night Logic and it is evident that this applies to this collection of poems (13). This collection offers an experience that will move readers as it explores absence and violence in a breathtakingly poignant, quiet way. While the poems move seamlessly from one to another and stand individually alone in their power, it is in their whole that the strength of the collection’s heartbreak shines.
The beginning of the collection deals with the speaker’s preoccupation with and romanticization of the past. Within the initial poems, there is a father, there is a brother, there is a mother, and they all are given considerable time in the poems. It is evident from the beginning that familial relationships and their breakdown will play an integral part to this collection. The father and his soon-to-be absence hover over the whole of many of the beginning poems. Within the first several poems, the introduction of identity exploration is given in terms of what it is to grow up queer in the context of these familial relationships and then, later, the outside world. In the first poem of the collection, the speaker states “all we get is a moment to think/that we are permitted more than a moment” (3). This introduces the overarching theme of fleetingness and fragility that pulses throughout the collection. As the first poem in the collection states “I’d rather remember” the speaker goes on to give a very curated and careful examination of the past until about midway through the book (3). The “rather” in this line is important because it indicates that there is something that the speaker would like to avoid remembering. One of the more engaging storytelling mechanisms that Gellman employs in this collection is that the speaker avoids naming trauma until later in the collection. Right away, the reader is dealing with absence in some sense.
As the collection continues, a sister is introduced. However, she is introduced in her absence: “I come to the wheat field/to look for my sister/but my sister is not here” (11). It is with her introduction that the poems in the collection begin to turn and shift as the past is remembered. Moments of violence begin to enter the collection. The speaker touches on topics of bullying and assault in regards to queerness with the title poem stating, “To be queer is to be questioned/on the way your breathing displaces light” (13). There is a struggle of being able to just be oneself that is introduced in this moment. Then the violence extends to his sister and what happened to her. Even in the violence, though, Gellman retains agency for his speaker. In perhaps the most overtly violent poem of the collection, the speaker asserts that although there is violence in the past scene he describes, he “will not say [it] in this poem” (24). It is clear that the poems are his home and belong fully to him. They are his way of reclaiming the past even when the careful curation and avoidance introduced in the beginning of the collection fail him as a coping mechanism. Rather, the speaker gains a strength in determining what can and cannot be included in this world he has created in dealing with the past.
Gellman’s exquisite line crafting and storytelling is complemented by the lyrical power and intensity that does not let up from poem to poem. In the poem “Trying to Grow,” the speaker states, “We spend life trying to grow/either harder or softer, and mostly/just wanting reprieve” (19). This collection at once both gives reprieve as the speaker grapples with taking agency over his past and then takes reprieve away by shining a light on the trauma of that past. It examines the past through a complicated lens and allows the reader to consider how identity is shaped by both what happens to one in the past and how one then is affected by the memories of those events. There are collections that haunt and stay with the reader long after the book has been closed making them a delight to return to over and over again. This is one such collection.
Katie Richards’ (she/her) manuscript Apple Mind was selected as an editors’ pick for the Laureate Prize and is forthcoming from Harbor Editions. It was also a semi-finalist for the 2021 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. Her poetry has previously appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Harbor Review, DIALOGIST, Softblow, South Dakota Review, and Sweet Tree Review among other places. Connect with her on TikTok @katierichardspoet.