When I start a prose poem collection I always find myself asking: Why? I don’t mean this as a negative. I love prose poetry, but I do enter a prose poem wondering why the poet decided to eschew what is perhaps the most obvious hallmark of a conventional poem: the line. I didn’t have to read far into Kathleen McGookey’s prose poem collection Stay before I found the hint of an answer: challenge. I enjoy a good challenge, and here are just a few categories of challenges, as I saw them, that you will encounter in McGookey’s collection.
The second poem in the collection, “Lament,” begins with the statement, “The heroine doesn’t know if she wants a child.” This statement introduces the topic of mothering, which will appear throughout the collection. I call the topic of mothering a challenge because it is a decision that many, if not all, women confront. And, as that first line indicates, not just the question of how to mother, but whether you want to be one at all. The topic of motherhood could be seen as a cliched one to approach, but McGookey manages to tackle the topic with poetic choices that pull that theme away from the cliché. McGookey even plays with the word cliché itself with the poem “Math.” (Of course the mere fact there is a poem titled “Math” in a book of poems will be somewhat humorous to most of the writerly community if we stick with the cliché that writers are not inclined to enjoy math.)
In “Math” McGookey’s speaker sets up the problem, “how to divide, divide again, and then not end up cliched, wearing a housecoat.” The speaker notes such numerical issues as “one and one make one,” “two children in a red wagon are heavier to pull than you’d think,” and “the pairs and pairs of muddy shoes.” There is an anxious undercurrent to these numbers and potential equations. but the poem ends with a series of questions because this speaker isn’t sure about the solution. There is an unanswered equation with the final question, “does anyone notice?” I found myself spending time with this question. Does the speaker mean to ask: will no one notice the “footballs thrown against the walls” anymore? Does she mean to ask: will anyone notice her anymore? Her work? I think all of these questions are deftly implied. Again, McGookey’s poem seems simple with its common language and block form, but the poem rises above the occasion and, mathematically and literarily speaking, multiplies with meaning.
Another challenge that McGookey raises is the pathetic fallacy. Maybe this is just my experience of academically studying poetics, but I was told that the use of a pathetic fallacy is – well – pathetic. Or, maybe it is better to say that it is something to avoid. Why? Because it has been overdone? Because it is too easy? Arguments can vary, but – again – McGookey challenges what some (or many) poetry critics might argue is something to avoid.
In “When Sorrow Arrives” the pathetic fallacy is already introduced with the title. So when you see that title what comes to mind? Just picture it. How do you think a writer will describe sorrow. Do you think of someone weeping? A woman? What cliches come to mind? I know I had many, but then the poem gives me images I wasn’t expecting such as sorrow smelling of “burning leaves and Murphy’s Oil Soap.” McGookey even challenges sorrow as necessarily a negative emotion by stating, “She didn’t break your heart.”
There are other poems in the collection that challenge the typical connotations of the emotions, especially when it comes to that very unfeminine of emotions: anger. McGookey includes “My Anger,” “My Anger at Home,” and “Punishment.” McGookey personifies Sorrow and Anger as well as Grief. If you sense a hint of the five stages of grief within these three examples you would not be wrong. McGookey tackles those stages through poems that hint at infertility, the fragility and illness of aging parents, and the loss of self. Again McGookey manages to take us through these stages in the way they truly happen: in the order of their own choosing as you move from Anger to Sorrow to Grief back to some Happiness and partial Acceptance before regressing etc. The stages are less stages and more leaves on a pond that cycle depending on other factors like the wind and the current.
As I referenced earlier, one of the arguments against the pathetic fallacy (and the same could be said again for the topic of motherhood) is that the trope has been overdone. As I took notes while reading Stay the other challenge to cliche was McGookey’s use of birds throughout the collection. If you are an avid reader (poetry or otherwise) how hard is it for you to come up with a reference to a bird in a work of literature? How easy is it for you to say what that bird is going to symbolize? It is because of that ease that McGookey takes a risk by peppering her collection with birds, thankfully, interesting ones.
This particularly stood out to me with the poem “Siege.” The speaker of this poem seems weary of children. You shouts, “Not inside the fence or house please . . . You know the rules.” But the children are everywhere. The comparison of these greedy children transitions into noting the birds that “circle and swoop” and “darken the sky.” The reader can’t help but compare and contrast the children and the birds. They are animalistic. The simple, typical language, of describing the birds becomes tense and dangerous when put onto these wild children who “ring the doorbell at dinner time and stay to watch us eat.” These are not gentle birds as perhaps we would have associated with children. Other birds appear in “Proposal,” but I was particularly drawn to the birds in “Prayer for Disappearing” which closes out section three of the collection.
This poem is about loss as the speaker loses everything from breath to her son’s tooth: a contrast of the more ethereal to the most concrete of images. And tied to these images, and the end of the poem (and section) are four swallows that will “dip and swoop through the humid air.” A swallow is a bird with many connotations. It could be one for love, loyalty, hope, but also of souls being ferried off to heaven. McGookey manages to use the simple swallow to encompass all of those with their appearance in the wky when it holds “both sun and moon,” and yet they will be flying over a skunk who “sidesteps our trap and noses up dirt around the foundation.”
This is a short poem that has a lot going on yet it manages to hold up under a lot of weight, especially when you look at its placement in the collection. It follows the poem “Near the Angel” which proposes a different type of feathered creature, but more than those additional winged implications is that this short poem closes out the section of the book which contains the book’s title poem “Stay,” a poem that pulls you to do as it says – to stay – to re-read as a truly good poem does. As a good collection does. These are poems, prose poem or not, that call you back to re-read them. To admire the challenges the speakers of the poems encountered and to enjoy the challenge the poet gave herself in crafting those stories with fresh takes on her, our, everyday.