The title of the first poem in Eileen G’Sell’s Life After Rugby (Gold Wake Press, 2018) is a directive: “Follow the Girl in the Red Boots.”
On the page, the poem is even, syntactically measured, easy on the eyes. But once the words breach the blood/brain barrier, the poem jolts us awake with a banging first line—“This place is weird, sexless and white”—its effect disguised in plain view.
Fair warning, then: the poems in this collection are, at glance, straightforward and formally contained. Read the lines, and fall in love with linguistic style and aesthetic, with music. Read again (you’ll read them again, trust me) and encounter the pathos and authentic truths about the human heart, memory, and its fracture.
The place G’Sell’s speaker speaks from, the place she came from, may be sexless and white, but heed the first poem’s instructions and prepare to be led down a complex weave of closets and car crashes, of postcards from wintry dreams. These poems cast a spell, feverish and lyric, punctuated by moments of clarity: glass-sharp, hard-hitting, grounding us for just a moment, a breath, an ache.
In the poem “Impervious to Avalanche,” G’Sell writes a profoundly quiet, sad death wish:
in perfect snow, die of sweet
collision, halfway to a heavy sky
and infinitely held.
In the poem “The Reason the Moon Moves,” she describes the cause and effect of an emotional breakdown:
A lack of quality opera lyrics
brought me to a standstill. Trains fled
the town of thought; my legs ached
a static madness.
These lines in particular resonate with me. In my darker moments, I cannot write. The loss of words is a loss of agency, and whatever words stay with me are negative and punishing. What kind of sorrow could steal G’Sell’s words— so crafted, musical— leaving behind “[t]he same song, the same song / played the day I lost [her]?”
However, in spite of this deep wish to “sleep in perfect snow,” G’Sell’s collection comes from a place of resolve. Her poems are concerned with the dichotomy between form and content, and they carry both with class. These poems ask questions: What is honesty? What is truth? What is beauty? What is style?
As a reader, I found myself oscillating between elation over these poems and ache over the authentic emotion that populates them.
Consider the poem “Real Butter,” which begins with a series of halting, half-formed thoughts and truths:
At best, life is hard.
At worst, life is easy.
I believe it’s true.
I would like to believe
I believe it is true
And what about the words
that cannot teach us anything?
Then, in a single sentence—“The secret is not hiding / from the music at a party”—the poem reveals G’Sell’s approach: dive in, unarmored. Grit teeth and bare.
The initial sequence of poems, infused with confusions and innocence, gives way to narrative complexity as we peel back layers of impeccable craft. In a way, this collection asks that we reverse engineer a sweet cocktail of intoxicants: linguistic beauty, mischief, and seductive arrangement. Because once the swoon settles, the emotional honesty sends us again into tailspin.
These poems say: It’s time to face the pain. But beauty tempers hard truths.
G’Sell acknowledges that words won’t solve everything. Her speaker asks, again, “Where will you lead the patient reader when / all of your words are gone?” as though she isn’t sure herself. This admission says much about the poet’s process; the aesthetic inclination is potent but so is the unabashed honesty. It is as if G’Sell can’t help but be vulnerable, can’t help but include truth and raw feeling.
G’Sell’s speaker insists, “…I am sorry, but I refuse. I refuse to make this beautiful.”
But later she expresses concern about forgetting. What will the speaker do, and where will we go, when the words run out? And thus begins our journey into Life After Rugby.
It is immediately clear that G’Sell eats, lives, and bleeds words. The balance of craft and raw emotion in this collection is always evident. Heavy content sidles up against stellar execution while managing not to stray into the sentimental or precious. G’Sell asks big questions and mines universal truths while offering us a look into her experience. Her storytelling is honest; it is confession set to music. Served with intelligence, decorum, and a wry smile, G’Sell shows her cards. Her exhausted heart beats hard in lines like these:
A cheap love
for easy truths
going to kill you.
And if you are just a warm surface
in the end, she will love you, all the same, as a star
shoots itself in the glowing foot …
Such a graceful, elegant, relatable gut punch, this admission of need. These lines also echo back to G’Sell’s desire to fall asleep in the snow, “infinitely held.” In both instances, there is an element of self the speaker is willing to destroy for respite. She’ll shoot herself in the foot for warmth. She’ll freeze to death for embrace.
In “Take Her Down,” G’Sell writes:
is a serious term that demands the swiftest
shorthand. A bicycle for the brakeless, A sprinting rudeness for roads unruled. I do not know
What I am doing, see. I am learning…
I get the sense here that G’Sell’s speaker can’t completely trust her version of events. This is the way traumatic memory unveils itself—all at once static and buzz, trickle and monster truck. This poem echoes an earlier sentiment: “I refuse to make this beautiful.” Still, G’Sell seeks “the swiftest shorthand”; she tells us form (the bicycle) is necessary to contain difficult (brakeless) emotion.
Such is the difficulty of digging through crates of heartbreak. But can a poet deny beauty? Whatever she pulls from the wreckage, G’Sell sets to music, and it dazzles. She keeps her reader drunk and dancing, in her speaker’s mind:
…littered with happy music, a heart broke
into quieted halves—[and] what you take from the platter
is on the house…
Form holds steady while content dreams, meanders: “What happens here is memory—yours, to be exact. A need to read the landmarks, a safe cracked by fastidious hands.” Here, the poem invites interaction. To G’Sell, the poem a recitation of memory; she is merely the messenger. Hers are the “fastidious hands” that have cracked this safe. She’s done her work. It is now up to the reader to dissect the poem’s glittering version of events, to decipher feeling and create relationship, to make G’Sell’s memory our own. Because, the truth is, some things hurt too much to recollect properly: “Sometimes I like to have feelings just because they are so impractical.”
Sometimes trauma and heartbreak are best left as fragment, as a windshield cracked.
I read one poem, “The Hit,” to my partner, aloud. My intention was to share the musicality in G’Sell’s poetry. But the poem coalesced into a snapshot, a water-damaged postcard: a portrait of a car accident—a blonde on the side of the road next to an upturned vehicle—smoking with a tragic urgency, and, again, a shock of clarity, and of place/image, and of feeling.
Is this G’Sell’s take on an emotional break she alludes to throughout the book, a culmination of repeating images: bright light, a hemline, silt-filled closets, red ribbon unfurling wrists and long forearms? Is this an ekphrastic reportage?
Does knowing every detail matter more than feeling each bump and scrape along the way?
“The Hit” is a still life, smoking. It is a rendering of a mind overturned with heartache, violence (internal and external), and the death-urge. Still, G’Sell’s voice remains cool and poised, effectively keeping a distance from the reader. The effect is spectacle, much like a car crash on a lonely highway.
Carefully crafted, nimble phrasings— heavy with implication and possibility—pirouette across the page, away from though not upstaging a dread that permeates:
For once, she knew
how a windshield felt. A solitary cinema.
She was a complete sentence written laxly
on the grass. Her shoes, her headscarf. Her earrings stayed on. I have no interest in lying here, she told the car.
It sounds so good. It hurts so good, too.
I could eat this poem.
It is as though G’Sell’s aesthetic is Prima Ballerina and her narrative the Black Swan—both important, though one perhaps favored, definitely more grounded. Although you could really make an argument for both, and G’Sell does. She writes:
I have two new shoes
and neither is practical,
though I love them both,
though I treat them best.
Left shoe: craft. Right shoe: story.
In the last poem in the collection, “I Have Not Been Charged for the Closet,” G’Sell’s speaker states that she has, in fact, put much work into storytelling:
that was filled with birds, silt, gloves,
and the dullness of pedals. My heart was clean
from the very first. My hands were ready
and opened like gifts. In sleep, the sound of hours rushed
across the street to ravish me.
And this hook, line, and sinker:
I have made light of many things
and that’s why we can see in here.
Of course she has. Levity and illumination work in cohesion throughout, the bright and sharp, a softened blow. The importance of both are never lost on the poet.
Yes, these are heartbroken poems. But they are not tired, lovelorn tropes. G’Sell crafts her telling accessibly without sacrificing her luscious and playful styling.
And she doesn’t ignore the truth of the matter: her heart was innocent, and it, along with the “gift” of her hands, was “ravaged,” her innocence turned silt and chrome.
But she laughs at the hurt, contains it in form.
G’Sell sets us on a glittering journey where page by page a path is laid for the reader to arabesque and gumshoe—through artistry, past viscera, in search of meaning, inebriated on melancholy and delight.
Though she brings splendor to the foreground, G’Sell has no intention of handholding or coddling her readers who gaze upon her cool, Didion-esque “California crime scene caught on film.”
Not all stories have happy endings.
In “All Epics Are Disappointing and All Disappointments Are Epic,” G’Sell writes:
You pick the best and feel its pull’ your hand will
not be orphaned. Everything extravagant is pulsing down your veins. Why
scale the night with satin cord? Why spring the sequin cliff? In the end your
horse will fall, your quest will fail to carry.
Still, on the other side of this journey, “Women & Children” emerge transcendent:
… lifting, spitting. They are blocking the sun. They are dirtier
than you ever remembered—holier, too.
An ending, though unhappy, is still a kind of survival.
Shiver not, ye scrappy child.
Nothing solid saves.
Maybe this levity is more mischief than it is giggles and pun. Perhaps this is a kind of laughter in the face of pain, an act of self-preservation. Because, in another moment of emotional honesty, she writes, about regret and love:
to have known that there are better places to leave
your heart, or shoes, or both, ‘We sojourned here,
and as heroes, wept for days that did not warrant
grieving.” The world was more real than anyone
could ever call reasonably possible.
G’Sell grows even more straightforward. Her speaker comes out and tells us what she’s learned:
You will not qualify
everything, and you shouldn’t…
There are no shortcuts. The pages turn and you forget.
So much for forgetfulness as being the “swiftest shorthand” (“Take Her Down”). Perhaps this is what we are meant to learn: there truly are no shortcuts when maneuvering trauma memory.
Here’s to forgetting.
They say routine is important when nursing a broken heart. They say humor and pathos come from the same place. They say form and rigor is necessary to contain emotion; seek order when processing a broken heart.
I’ve been there.
I’ve reached for the retelling, relied on the reframe; I have turned to story in order to stave the bleeding heart.
I ask myself this question almost nightly: Does the opportunity to heal, to remedy a splinter lodged in our past, eventually expire? Can healing be achieved without absolute comprehension? Must story be seamless; must recollection be spot on? Can image stand for situation, effectively and honestly?
And how does one capture a memory so painful that it causes one to lose their words, altogether? How does one not just maneuver, but manipulate so beautifully the very thing, lost?
In Life After Rugby craft is not lost to truth, rawness, and confusion. In turn, truth is not dulled by brilliant craft. We begin the book unprepared; we end breathless, full of silt and snow and hard, bright light.
Still, the heart is broken.
In her poem “I Am, As Always,” G’Sell tells us:
There are places where the precipice
of reason is the reason. Hold on
to my wreckage or, please, let me go.
We are all parts. We are our shatter.
Besides, isn’t it true that we are corporeal, spiritual mosaics made of every heart we break, and are broken by—every linoleum hallway, every bracelet lost, every bare foot and dream?
I laud G’Sell’s poetic body, how her form corrals wound, which in turn highlights the heartache that bursts, seeps through straight lines and meter. She doesn’t hold back, but her pain is not the sole workhorse that drives this collection, nor is it the only source of meat. There is much to sink one’s teeth into here.
Wielding sharp taste and strong bones, G’Sell is a master of choreography, language, narrative, with an erudite dedication to both her craft and her heart. She sacrifices neither, nor does she traipse into the land of self-aggrandizement.
Life After Rugby is a deceptively accessible collection full of hidden delights. I recommend multiple readings, as you’ll discover more to adore with each one. The collection is not overwrought or laden with woes. It is funny, sassy, and intelligent, and, G’Sell assumes the same of its reader. It is lush and dripping with linguistic moments and melody that I cannot help but read aloud over and over.
Did I already say it? I could eat this book.