Emily Kendal Frey
The Grief Performance
reviewed by Ann Reynolds
Grief and public grieving is often associated with human weakness and morbidity. It is not elegant to go weeping through the streets, nor do people in our country dress in black for any longer than the length of a wake or funeral. We are expected to remain solemn while grieving. However, here arrives a poet who has turned these emotions around to face their grievers. Emily Kendal Frey’s The Grief Performance treads through morbidity with love, poise, and bravery. Perhaps what Frey’s poems know that we do not know: “Today is the anniversary/of every other day. Insofar as/no one knows/anything new/about love.” Grief has an opposite and also a true match: love. Frey’s often sparsely-written poems tell us this—that grief and love have more in common than we typically acknowledge.
While films such as The Tree of Life, Biutiful, Vanishing of the Bees, The Rabbit Hole and in recently published memoirs such as Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso, The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O’Rourke, and Half a Life by Darin Strauss exhibit startlingly realistic enclaves of human suffering, loss, murder, accidental death, a grieving of the body, dying of the earth, and the mystery of sadness, they are also intent on figuring out how to grab grief by the throat, to let it go, or to just endure the still-living world for one more day. What truths are these filmmakers and writers are trying to uncover? How does one learn or relate to the experience of others when every person falters and loves and understands the world from their own pole? Frey’s first full length collection, chosen by Rae Armantrout as the winner of the 2010 Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Award, does not give you the answer. It emulates how to behave if you want the answer. The poems lead by example.
No one person experiences melancholy the same way, therefore making it frightening because peopleoften demand an explanation, a cause. We always want to know why something happened, so that we may try to fix it. In Frey’s poems, however, there lives a balance between these ideas:
4. Trust is considered an igloo construction A flag flown piece by piece We light out We make For the light
The figurative and referential “light” that “we” “make for” as we read these poems is actually a kind of celebration. Light is warm, can heal, is absorbed by animals and plants order to grow, and aids in the appropriate levels of seratonin necessary for human happiness. In fact, when the very first light of dawn hits the retina, it produces seratonin. Frey is frank about telling us that we are dying every day—perhaps spending every day “making for the light.” But her words are elegant, even in moments of humor, which lighten and further humanize the voice behind her poems. I feel safe in the light with Frey. I do not feel like it is death that is coming for me, but the rays of healing and progression. I could be a flower or even a “split white fish, ribs flapping.” Frey cultivates the voice of a heroine of death and light and love—the voice of someone who speaks to death directly:
14 Death, my best and most insincere opponent I’m ready for you this time with fists of sand
The poem “Beach,” from the first of three sections exemplifies our heroine’s perspective: “Hearts are cards./We flip like fish. And settle in/for the grief performance.” The key word is “settle.” I hear the bells of acceptance tolling, for whatever physical or spiritual loss is being examined. But settling, according to the voice and actions in these poems, is not a weakness.. To highlight this bravery, one can take note of the contrast between Frey’s, “Beach” and Anne Sexton’s poem, “The Truth the Dead Know”:
Gone, I say and walk from church, refusing the stiff procession to the grave, letting the dead ride alone in the hearse. It is June. I am tired of being brave.
But Frey’s “settling in…for the grief performance” is a brave and valiant form of ownership, a way to win the match against life’s only true opponent: death. Where Sexton is tired of bravery in “The Truth the Dead Know,” Frey fearlessly picks up momentum.
20 The BIG clue is the first dabble in desire. If you had to sneak it and if you keep sneaking. Love, you know, isn’t a secret. It’s the bam bam catastrophe. Here I come, with confetti. Just try and knock me from this moving float.
While reading The Grief Performance, one has the feeling of being suspended on a high wire in a beautiful gown and looking down from the ceiling at all the people, smiling and waving. The people beneath may be frightened for you to fall, but with Frey’s poems in your mouth for balance, you also know that you will not.. Frey’s world is a place where, “Time stops for no one.” It is a simple, human revelation for one to accept the void and ceaselessness of time, but Frey convinces us that we must confront reality with the ferocity of will.
Frey also fools us at times—are the poems about grieving? Are they speaking to a grief that has not arrived? Are they sad or combative? Are they defining loss the way one defines their worth or knowledge: lists of books read, people in one’s acquaintance, countries traveled, bucket lists crossed off? The poems are some of these things, none of these things, and all of these things. They are serious and then they are humorous, they are sad and then they are revelatory. The first section of the first poem, “The March” begins with a juxtaposition:
1 To be separate is to be the smallest bit angry I’m not reading enough blogs I should be more up to date with people’s blogs
To be angry about being separate can be seen as a moment of philosophical or existential crisis, but presenting that idea in contrast to trying to keep up with “people’s blogs” is quite comical. The comedy, for a moment, destroys the sentiment of being separate and being angry. To keep up with people’s blogs instead of for example, visiting people as a way to remain connected is interesting. Reading a blog, no matter how widespread its notoriety or number of visitors to its web page is still isolating and solitary. But I think this is what Frey means by the lines, “To be separate/is to be the smallest bit angry.” In Meghan O’Rourke’s, The Long Goodbye, she states, “Being a mourner was lonely.” Frey too, understands this loneliness, but her poems exude a fierceness that belittles loneliness and fear. Her contradictions, for example, in the poem “Your First Bed,” are motivation to remain aware of the way that the beauty of “darkness” must also be seen: “Here, body inside my body./Here’s a night-blooming cereus,/light attached.” Frey wants the flower that only blooms in the dark to be discovered—for what happens in the shadows to also be shined upon as well.
To see a shadow, or the darker silhouette of any form, one must also stand in the light. The wonder of a child in seeing his or her shadow for the first time is similar to the wonder readers will be propelled by as they read these poems. Grief is physical, mental, and spiritual, and is not often thought of as elegant. Frey moves us elegantly toward “the light” as we read. In the end, even her love letters (“Love Letter is a title of one of the poems) are feathered with ferns, rocky sunsets, and “perhaps the tide comes in with this letter.” If the sea comes in with the love she envisions, if what blooms in dark requires light to appreciate it, one cannot help but be convinced to believe that, “We’re being/made love to, don’t you see?”