“If you marry, you will regret it,” Kierkegaard wrote in Either/Or in 1843. “If you do not marry, you will also regret it.” Yes, the quiet truth at the heart of our oldest institution: it isn’t easy. The speaker in Kimberly Grey’s first collection, The Opposite of Light, which won the 2015 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry, takes us so close to her marriage that we can see its intricate, intimate structure, the architecture of its language and feeling. And it isn’t all light. “Love is not an actual helmet,” she writes. It can not shield us from the world, and the world is mostly difficult.
The newspaper says
the world is in no way merciful. So we must be
in no way merciful.
I rehearsed it all night—the absence of mercy,
as a condition to you who said
When I am in the same room as your body I am
in a different room.
These poems break a marriage open and look at its complicated interior: sometimes rife with passion, sometimes loneliness and pain. There are birds everywhere—flying, fighting, dropping eggs, entering mouths. There’s sex, food, hunger, light. Uncertainty. Invention and reinvention. And while the language is deft and beautiful, the poems are rarely rooted anywhere, rarely held to a geographic place; they’re more at play in the vast interior landscape of the speaker’s thinking mind that alliterates, associates, plays with and contemplates how she’s existing in a modern marriage with all its ancient, human troubles.
And it’s in the design of language that she finds the lens to explore it. She calls on syntax and sounds (“be aw, be owe”; “Let’s take all this modern stuff and let it beat: nth it goes nth”) to devise, to build meaning. The opening poem, “Invention”, begins: “Built your truss, built your small back, all I could muster, all cheek and luck” (characteristic anaphora, it turns out). But even as she builds, she deconstructs, breaking marriage down piece by piece, drawing us into its acrobatic stumble: “What we’ll always have becomes something we lost, becomes something we want, becomes sadness”; then “I’ll be wind rose, I’ll be tumbleweed. I’ll be the leaving and the way we left.”
This making and dismantling becomes its own kind of tumbleweed through the book as the speaker looks at contemporary marriage and how one formally lives alongside another with the great range of feelings that sweep from unrest to lust, both potent forces in here. I often think of a line in an Amy Bloom story: “love is not a pie”. It is not always even or fair. There is no particular portion promised you. For every ardent moment—“when I wanted you bird, you bared. Unzipped and high, you grasped the bedpost and begged”—there is another full of discontent, sadness. “To whittle a marriage down to its bones and finally say I want you to be gone in the morning”. Or, as she writes in “Conjugating”:
[we are] not light
but light’s potential
to change us into that thing we never were
before, that we are
not now. So much time piled up inside us
both, perhaps one
day we’ll understand: why it hurts to be here,
and there, and then.
Later in the book, in a poem titled “Conjugated” (not to be confused with “Conjugating”), Grey again considers the prismatic ways we change, like language. “Let this be a lesson in the syntax of bodies,” the speaker writes in “Meditation in B”, as though the formal properties of language are the framework of how she understands everything. Other titles in the book include “A Meditation in Adverbs”, “Hunger Sentences”, “To Grieve in Other Verbs”. Her attention to creation itself is most alive in the etymology of conjugation which is steeped in her many references to eggs. For the speaker, the experience of coupling is a birth. To conjugate is to join, a marry; but it’s also to have features in common with another thing while holding some opposite particular. It’s sharing a derivation and thus a likeness in meaning. Its Latin link is to yoke, to origin, the most meaningful recurring image in the book, and its final one:
We were fine
Inside that egg, one yolk to get us through. Then with a squawk and flap, she said I-love-you-
god-speed and cracked us in two.
One will come to this book from any number of places: freshly married. Unmarried. In a marriage raising children, stained with spaghetti sauce, under-slept. In a marriage without children. Happily alone. Having sex; having none. How we face poems about marriage and intimacy will be different. But none of us is new to the question of how we traverse a life that is finite. We all ache in our briefness. The sadness in here seems to come from the fact that marriage, with all its hopes and promises of safety in another person, can’t cure that singular ache or stretch our life beyond its mortal limits. Instead, it’s filled with our most human of worries: “And tomorrow, don’t say tomorrow. Let’s not be futuristic. We don’t know how long this will last”.
Sometimes the lovers are birds (“we are the birds of this tub, our little boat almost sunk and us beneath it”) or they’re eggs, or within eggs. We understand by the end that marriage is the new something that was born, that it’s a conjugation of two. That the speaker who says “Somehow we are a we” knows too the disillusionment of it, the illusory ways of our metaphors when we’re knee-deep in the mud of our toughest experiences.
Where I put you read him
where I put a curve
in the road read read curve in your body,
curve of my face, in any skin
mine or yours.
And if you see a bird fly by the window,
Know there was never any bird.
Hillery Stone’s poems and essays have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast and on poets.org. She was the recipient of a Gulf Coast poetry award judged by Marie Howe and spent ten years teaching expository writing at NYU. She lives and writes in Brooklyn.