Gale Marie Thompson

Soldier On

Tupelo Press

reviewed by Dara Cerv

When I first tackled Gale Marie Thompson’s Soldier On, I wrote a completely different piece; then my computer ate it. That same day, I went to have my natal chart read for the first time. The only paper I had with me was the set of blank pages in the back of Soldier On, so it was there I took notes about my myriad astrological points of interest and connection. Things merge like this for me all the time and it’s difficult to not follow suit, so on the bus ride home I reread the poems from a different angle. During this fresh read of the text, a new theme arose. If there is a lesson or pathway in this collection of poems, they encourage us to reexamine, to revaluate, to keep searching for and collecting that which serves us and to siphon that which does not. But to also give praise to that which does not, to understand the value of what creates a being, be it good or bad, active or passive. Be it simply named experience.

The beauty of a natal chart is that it invites you into a shared history. Some humans somewhere, a long time ago, got together and created an astrological structure that describes patterns in our behaviors and thoughts. They took hard scientific elements—the moon, the sun, planets, et al.—and added poetics. Astrology transforms our natural world in a way that allows us to reinterpret the effects of physics and planetary shifts on our lives. Science may possess its own artfulness, but not all of us are so easily engaged by its straightforward qualities. For instance, without a way to describe the structure of a snowflake, the geometries involved, without naming its qualities and storing it in different pockets of memory, we would be living in a world of strict lines and equations. Words, namely poetry in the case of Soldier On, allow us to place snowflakes in a snow bank, allow the description of its chill on our cheeks, allow us to elevate its inherent qualities. In her collection, Thompson does this exact thing. It is not the object we are looking at, but the unique way in which the object takes shape through the filter of language: “similar to opening up the Andes / and finding beautiful crickets inside.” In general, she takes the science of the brain—memory—and blows it apart. She then puts it back together again in such a way that we relate to the actual process of collecting thoughts across a lifetime. As she says, “I am thinking that time / is something we move through.” We are offered ownership over something that often owns us.

Shared history comes from many places. The notion of collective consciousness. The need to be part of family. The desire to create meaning in a life. The desire to have a set of things—call them values, call them rituals—by or with which to live. Soldier On vibrates with shared history; it collects and describes its objects, it elaborates on and reinvents memory for the purpose of self-preservation as well as a wider, societal preservation. It celebrates the process of remembering and forgetting, and of needing to hold on and push forward. It is both deeply personal and vastly interpersonal. It possesses a certain American-ness and also universality. We see gingham and also pulsars, we “float up and down,” “flash in and out.” We are not sure where we exist sometimes, but are also grounded in the sense that we are somehow contained, by recurring details, scenes, and the inclusiveness of Thompson’s language. The I, we, and you, are interchangeable and immutable. We are collected and are collecting.

The woman who read my natal chart gave me a great deal of information about what it means that my moon (I’m a water sign) rests in an earth sign. Harmony there exists in the sense that earth shapes water in containment, and water in turn nourishes and alters the shape. In a similar way, Thompson’s memory touches and infiltrates its earthly world as water does. It is pervasive, absorptive, but also impossible to see in the air, evaporating and changing form. It is influenced and influencing. Truly, “Existence is having a form”, but “Is what is holding me / to the earth / going to fling me away?” Memory, or the mind, is what makes us up, what essentially creates us, and is also our most feared companion. If we lose it completely, who are we? If we even lose some of it, how to be whole? Thompson pours things into her poems again and again to shape thoughts or memory into a personal and tangible history. There is a constant re-visitation of the self in different incarnations of a memory, place, or time, which in turn creates grounding in the present:

                I may not go
                to the door.
                I may come back to it
                five years from now.

                This, being absorbed.

                This is my shining hour.

It’s difficult not to lapse into a deep exploration of the poems in Soldier On. Teaching this book with regard to how memory and sense of self are contained by poetics would be a delight and a challenge, there is so much within it. But if there’s one thing the author wants us to do, it’s to not get stuck. We are meant to push forward from the first poem, which is an invitation to “be swept up & sieved / & enter & enter & enter.” From the start, Thompson tells us that we must be willing to be broken apart and move in a form to which we aren’t necessarily accustomed. We are to be blown through the landscape with only some solid footing, experiencing the world through the hiccups and grappling of active memory. And here is where shared history comes alive, in this experiment of consciousness. It may be impossible to entirely know another human being, but we all share this state of being, this possession of a mind that works a certain way, that can be sometimes so complete and at other times impossible to grasp. Through the process of all acts of memory—forgetting, remembering, re-telling – through sharing and exploring its contents and where the process intersects, we fill a similar container:

                This is exquisite, this open concept. . . 
                We have no use for parquet floors,
                for predictable rooms, 
                for pure function.

                We still love those we hear
                on the porch downstairs,
                still walk all night in the bare mulch.