REVIEW OF EMILY KENDAL FREY’S THE GRIEF PERFORMANCE
The Grief Performance, winner of Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Award, overflows with cautious optimism, more specifically a hopefulness to “make for the light” emitted by the deceased. The poems confront the light of death with “fists of sand” and “acts of magic” that use simple yet pointed diction; their speaker remains cognitive of the living body’s sensations. “The March” is the first poem and draws attention to the senses, as the reader must appreciate that “Scent is the part / of sight / we can’t see,” that there is a tangibility to the unseen deserving recognition. The poems in Frey’s collection are assertive and extremely confident. By the end of “The March,” the speaker transforms an illusory dream state into a revelation: “We’re all going / to the same place.”
Much of the drama throughout the book feels self-contained in both form and content, as in the first of the series of poems titled “The End” the speaker mimics the dead look of a significant other, whose eyes are fixed to a television screen:
your face is dead
and I’m dead
as long as I’m in
the room with you
so love becomes
a blue thing
and we shine
The subtle tension in the relationship comes through in these short couplets but dissipates in the end lines, like subconsciously holding one’s breath when stressed, only to exhale deeply and feel euphoric relief. Many of the poems in The Grief Performance end with surprises, swarming with complicated language, yet are ultimately concerned with communication and firmness despite failures. In “Kelp Forest” we learn about the “system of signs” for speaking underwater, which creates an awareness of the speaker’s environment. Often the key to these poems is a delicate self-awareness that beats with specificity, as when the speaker of “Things Were Just Bad” has a moment outside herself, stumbling over “a stone / that reminded her of her mother’s face.” The marvel becomes the specificity of an uncomfortable image that follows: “It was all / very textured, like a mask that makes your face sweat.”
In equal measure, regardless of the speaker’s perpetual self-deprecating sense of self, is a desire to be remembered, as in the “Love Letter.” The second line of Frey’s sprawling yet precise couplets is a letter in opposition to the human body’s eventual “liver-spots and decaying”: “Never / will this letter be referred to as an institution, nor will it endure of persevere.” Thoughts like these occupy the minds of poets and writers alike, especially in a creative practice where successes can be overshadowed by the chirping of failure. In the same poem, we get “[p]ineapples bruise and drip / inside these words” and “sunburned thighs,” minor damages that culminate into a shift in the seventh couplet in which two lover’s love inflates “like a balloon too / close to flame.” The consistency at which Frey’s crisp images puncture timeless subjects is breathtaking. Frey also uses various forms of light—flames, ethereal light, lightning etc. — throughout the collection as signposts that illuminate the essential beauty and hazardousness of human togetherness.
The collection’s wise speaker invests much in learning from mistakes, spilling her wisdom in the sectioned poem “Meditation on a Meditation of Frost” that takes residence in the book’s final section. The poem’s concise, aphoristic and often lyrical lines are concerned with tuning the self’s emotional response to the world outside of writing, especially in sections 5, 7, and 21:
for no one
as the plaque outside
the now closed Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School reads
We shall overcome
Scientists are now harvesting
seeds to save for when the world
goes dry. No one will eat when
we’re stuck to the sides
of canyons, rinsing our hair in debris.
Horror is self-
Choose Halloween costumes
that bore you shitless.
The beauty of Frey’s poetic imagination is that despite the occasional otherworldly vibe or a speaker metaphorically transformed into an open hasp, every poem feels authentic. After reading The Grief Performance, I am confident “you’ll have a whole new set of sounds / you can make with your mouth.”
Stephen Danos earned an MFA in Creative Writing – Poetry from Columbia College Chicago, where he was the recipient of a Follett Fellowship and the Eileen Lannan Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Forklift, Ohio, Court Green, Lo-Ball, Bateau, and Juked.