Rebecca Kaiser Gibson on How to Live by Kelle Groom

The cover of Kelle Groom’s latest book, How to Live (Tupelo Press, 2023) demurely suggests that it is “A Memoir-in-Essays.” But once you enter the vast interior of her attention,

you discover that you are in a realm rarely navigated in either form. If it were only the precision of her rendering of terror, her willingness to reveal it, and her ability to articulate what careens through the mind and rigidifies the body when, for instance, driving on unfamiliar highways, that would be an unusual accomplishment.  But then there are also the multiple times when she shares the results of deep research, demonstrating an eager curiosity and skillful scholarship not the least bit self-referential.  And then there is the leitmotif of the birth of her son, the forced adoption, and the early death of him – that haunts and compels her.  Kelle proceeds without apology to reveal and dwell within her obsessions. That she seems astonishingly grounded, trusting without even noticing her own trust in her ability understand the context of what she encounters, is a huge element of the appeal of this energetic and gripping book. 

The breadth of her “Notes & Sources” speaks to the capaciousness of her intrepid curiosity.  Some sense of the scope of her interest is revealed in even a glimpse at the variety of her sources : from Libby Larson’s Songs from Letters: Calamity Jane to her Daughter; to Henry Beston’s The Outermost House;  from Thomas Merton’s essay “A Body of Broken Bones”, to “Fracking Accidents in Wyoming “researched in multiple governmental, news and watch dog publications; interspersed with cogent comments by Thich Nhat Hanh, undergirded with reference to Paula M. Marks’ writing on American Indian Dispossession and Survival; ranging through poetry, map making, music, and philospophy.  And that’s just a quick glimpse.

But let’s look now at the writing itself, which is the treasure of this book I open at random (knowing I’ll be thrilled on any page) to a vivid sketch:

“In a DC museum, I’d seen a woman made of marble in 1876”

Before I quote more, let’s notice how deftly she orchestrates our perception.  First, she announces the sight of the woman, not as a sculpture but as a woman, only then we learn she was made of marble, and after that, over a “century ago. Such that we already understand Kelle’s priorities.  She connects mostly to the once living woman.  She continues:

“Veins in her neck where her blood flowed.” (p.45)

This is a remarkable re-animation of the human living source of the artist’s creation. Groom’s ability to presume connection to what she witnesses, what she reads, what she hears, is an element of the exciting vitality of her book!  

Groom displays an untrammeled freedom to utilize an astonishing variety of sentence structure.

  • from diary-entry-like fragments:

“Clear gray air. Streets once water and tidal marsh until filled with gravel. Weirs in the underbody.  Travel bag heavy on my shoulder. Too-big snow boots shuffle.  A garden. Headstones in snow..” (p. 67)

Even here, especially here, Groom’s pacing is vivid, atmospheric and sensual, giving us the lonely, trudging approach to the omnipresence of the dead.

  • To reportorially complete sentences:

“Until 2010, companies didn’t have to reveal the names of chemicals used in fracking... Wyoming was the first state to demand disclosure.”

The interspersion of researched facts throughout the book not only give it ballast, but speak to her omnivorous interests. 

  • Throughout, in shimmering threads that attach her various abodes. Of a temporary house in Provincetown, MA, she writes.

“Around midnight, rain falls sideways on all the little windows that front my attic on the sea.”(p. 161)

How appealingly she notices and claims the details, the “little” windows, of ‘her’ attic, the    sideways rainy view of the sea!

The book of essays traces a seemingly peripatetic existence from residencies to rentals, including bouts of homelessness and visits to beloved houses, sold and dissolved — ranging up and down the East coast from Florida to Cape Cod, and far west to Las Vegas, Wyoming and California, from mountain top to sea level.  Throughout, the writing grapples with the loss of her infant son, addiction and recovery, solitude and encounter, and always a total engagement with what she encounters.  At one point she claims, “Each person is a flame I stare into.” Searingly, she seeks.

It is accurate to say, as Joan Wickersham suggests, that the book describes, “a restless search for a place to be–a way to live.” Groom herself seems to claim that description of her life.  However, I was struck repeatedly by the full heartedness with which she observes the contours of her visitations.  Would we readers really want her to stop arriving on unfamiliar roads, at new places  and into alien rooms, each of which she generates with heart-stopping fidelity?  Is this, in fact, not living at its most attentive and alive – to be sought over the mind-numbing comfort of the unnoticed familiar?  And who else lets us in with such apparent transparency, in language that hops and floats and gambols, trusting the punch of a fragment where necessary and the ribbon of sentences when appropriate.  Though she speaks compellingly of fear, she also seems fearless, as she lingers in transitory dwellings describing them in such striking language that we alight with her.

Rebecca Kaiser Gibson’s debut novel is The Promise of a Normal Life, (Arcade Publishing, Feb. 2023). Her poetry collections are Girl as Birch (2022), and Opinel (2015), Bauhan Publishing. Her work appears in the following: Agni; Barrow Street, Field; Green Mountains; Greensboro; Interim, Harvard; Massachusetts; Ocean State; Passengers; Salamander; Slate; Tupelo; and VerseDaily among others. She’s received fellowships from MacDowell, Massachusetts Cultural Council, Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. As Fulbright Scholar she taught in India. She taught poetry at Tufts University for 23 years, then founded, and runs The Loom, Poetry in Harrisville, a poetry reading series.