The Grief Performance, by Emily Kendal Frey

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Emily Kendal Frey’s compact, laconic poems from her first collection, The Grief Performance, outwit, outlast, and, eponymously, outperform not only death, but failure, ennui, and despair. How, you ask? For starters, the speaker of The Grief Performance treats poems as if they were contingent to experience (perhaps, because they are).

Poem 11 from “Meditation on a Meditation of Frost”:

Elves, backyard pit barbeque, lilacs,
termites in the backseat:
the sum of it makes a person
want to: lemons, lemons, lemons.

Or, Poem 9 from the same series:

Everybody has their own thing
that they yell into a well about

It isn’t life, in other words, that disappoints—it’s the poems about life—or, what we choose to see. “There are three dead people inside me,” says the speaker, who carries this oracular burden (the dead want a place at the table, too) with a gravitas that at times borders on hilarity: at others, as a bonafide momento mori. Deleuze’s notion of “becoming-animal,” or “becoming-molecular” (both tied to the political aim of “becoming-minor”) surface throughout this aphoristic text—not as forms of shape-shifting or as means of identification with the natural world, but, rather, as a more expansive view on subject-object relationships—and the relationship between material reality and ideology.

Poem 4:

“ . . . 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.

The speaker’s beauty, and the beauty of the other, undergo transformations—but again, from the level of an internality or subterranean reality which cannot be spoken of it not already experienced (“This will meaning nothing/ to you/ unless you live underwater/ with birds”). This underwater terrain, in other words, is a world wherein values still abide, hence: “Because you are unkind/ to me, you have become/ less beautiful.”

From the serial poem, “The End”:

I miss my beauty
in the field

the long

palls of hair

my dead

no bird

And, from “Hasp”:

In the sun
pants riding
my hips I was
so beautiful

Why did you leave
me open
like that?


The pressure put upon the poem when the lines are one- or two-words long, is significant, as is the success borne from the tensions that ensue between the stanzas, the couplets themselves, and on the individual line between the two or three words (if that many are included). While the formal experiments of The Grief Performance vary (e.g. the prose-y “The History of Knives”; the block stanza of “I am the Scenery”) the desultory and yet strategic language of the terser poems proves the poet’s economy of expression as a rare gift—and even rarer aesthetic choice, in today’s light verse culture.

More sincere than a new sincerist (because more convinced that rather than being f-ed over by god, capitalism or the government, “We’re being/made love to”?), Frey’s debut collection is akin to the bird described by the poet in “Birds are So Soft”: a small creature whose faiblesse is its vulnerability to life, and to love. Walk this line with this poet, upon initial and multiple re-readings, and the promises extended to the reader in “Birds are So Soft” may be, as “an act of magic,” revealed.

Birds are so soft.
You can’t imagine . . .
They get pin feathers.
New feathers that grow in plasticky sheaths.
You have to break them up with your fingers.
Fabulous. A head massage for the birds .
They coo, close their eyes,
and coo. You’ll see . . .
Remove the sheath. It’s heavenly.

Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, the Believer, and The New Republic, among other places. A recipient of fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, Ox Bow, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, she lives in Chicago, where she is a doctoral student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. More from this author →