The Octopi and the Flaking Salt

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The Grief Performance took me to the edge of an existential black hole, then threw me back on the concrete and said, “Bitch, please. This is theater.”

Emily Kendal Frey’s first full-length collection of poems is a tragicomedy. The Grief Performance, winner of 2010 Cleveland State University First Book Prize, was selected by Rae Armantrout. The poems in this book tackle the crisis and absurdity of grief. It’s a quick read – prose and short form poems are divided into three sections – the entire collection clocks in at 72 pages.

Compression highlights Frey’s ability to pack wit and profundity into tiny spaces. Perhaps she lives in a black box theater – stranger things have happened in Portland, Oregon. With few props, Frey is able to devote space (and time) to manuscripts. That said, she may need to wallpaper the bathroom soon.

Dread isn’t something I look forward to, but when Armantrout called The Grief Performance “a performance of grief and dread as a graceful dance,” I was willing to watch the show.

Loss, abandonment, and death are unlikely playthings. Without humor, they are also impossible to bear. In “Neighbors,” Frey rescues the elephant in the room and takes it out to sea:

Look at them, communicating
as if a whale

wasn’t in the room
to stand in

I’ve changed
a tire’s

tiny teeth
To steal

To blend
and blue-harbor

They are playing so hard
on their baby.

Baby becomes an instrument – I picture a rainbow xylophone – out of tune and, consequently, jarring. “Neighbors” evokes the alarming imagery of Frey’s earlier work. These images allow her poems to oscillate between dead serious and dead pan. When Frey turns a line, readers can expect her to flip the current image or associate it with a new one. The third section of The Grief Performance spotlights this skill:

“ … because I forgot
how soft … ”
I heard you say
as you turned me over
like a split white fish,
ribs flapping. The other half
of the sentence lost inside
your other manuscript

“Meditation on a Mediation of Frost,” the sole poem in the third section of the book, is a sequence split into 29 parts. I was impressed by the deft blend of profound and buoyant. The 21st part of “Meditation on a Mediation of Frost” captures Frey’s dexterity in four short lines: “Horror is self- / referential. / Choose Halloween costumes / that bore you shitless.”

Playing dress-up with terror reduces its power; crisis turned inside out is a tragicomedy.

The brief poems in this book outperform their longer counterparts. Frey’s prose and long poem are weakened by an over-rapid execution of associative imagery. As a reader, I got lost in the tangle of images and couldn’t find my way back. So, as we do in Oregon, I decided to hug a tree and wait for the rescue party. Sound brought me back to the stage – I have no idea how I wandered outside.

The Grief Performance reflects a keen sense of the aural. Frey is familiar with the acoustics of her performance space. I couldn’t follow the content of “Love Letter,” but once I fell in love with the language, disorientation became a minor flaw:

It is not boisterous or benevolent; however, it is breathtaking. Full bloom
unscented, oiled. Perhaps the tide comes in with this letter. The octopi

and the flaking salt, driftwood wearing seaweed necklaces, dribbling pebbles
and shells. A rocky sunset in this letter. Illicit beach fires. Sunburned thighs.

All the limes split and squeezed, drying on the cutting board. A crow
in the driveway. Indifferent aunts. One plane missed. Hungarian stew.

And then, he couldn’t stop the feeling. He missed her pants and hips,
lint between the computer keys, the purr of the electric toothbrush,

I wanted to lick the sounds off this poem; I settled for reading it aloud.

Dorothea Lasky predicted my reaction to the The Grief Performance: “I want to go into the world that these poems create, just so I can be given these terrifying presents again and again. I know you will, too.” Emily Kendal Frey’s first full-length collection is playful, dangerous, and sincere. Read it and weep with laughter.

Jessica Varin is a scientist and poet. She lives in Oregon or anywhere gainful employment can be found. You can follow her on Twitter @jessicavarin. More from this author →