Hard-Earned, Essential Grace: Anaphora by Kevin Goodan

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Alice James Books claims to produce “books that matter,” and Anaphora by Kevin Goodan is an excellent example of how the publisher lives up to its mission. Anaphora matters artistically, politically, and historically, and is especially welcome now, when writers with close ties to long-marginalized groups need to be heard with more urgency than ever.

Though not Native American, Goodan was raised on Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation and is the stepson of a member of the tribe. He has spent a lot of time outdoors working as a firefighter for the US Forest Service, is an award-winning poet, and teaches at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho. He knows Latin, which helps explain why he would choose as a title for this book a word with Latin roots that is connected to consecration, the act of bringing back and repeating.

Everything Goodan writes suggests the many unheard voices of his past surroundings. He is a gifted elegist, and Anaphora does what all elegies must: It reanimates the dead, truthfully, sometimes unbearably, providing what they clearly cannot.

Twenty-three years ago, Goodan’s cousin Jimmy, a member of Flathead tribe, committed suicide by hanging himself in a modest building near where the family lived. After his death, friends and relatives never spoke of Jimmy. They collectively tried to obliterate the fact that he had existed, and the specifics of why they did so remain frustratingly obscure. This is one reason to appreciate the spacious layers of what Goodan accomplishes in this collection.

In Anaphora, Goodan consecrates the young man’s memory and comes as close as is humanly possible to bringing Jimmy’s spirit back to the realm of the living:

Cut my cousin down
Joe Grady’s dead
Jimmy get rid of that earring
we who sway in the drop-zone
chromatic blue of hanging
the flourishing moment
codename grateful calling to
something I can hold something
common of the moment that will
echo our belief here
at the watertower where we
purge tomorrow of its shine

It’s unclear who did the deed of cutting Jimmy down. What matters is that it’s done, and that “purge” is such an active, corrosive word, as if the moment of death could somehow purge the pain that led to it but instead steals “shine,” happiness, hope.

It’s no secret that the dominant culture—in this case white American culture—creates taunts for those they view as “other”; taunts that can violate and break the spirit:

Here no shine feel the goodbye
burn Jimmy half-breed hanging

All the poems in this book are untitled, and the two lines above are from a riveting piece that puts the reader inside the story. It’s a terrible place to be, but it’s also the essential place, and always a place with a voice that makes one “feel the goodbye.” Here is an entire poem that is both brutal and compassionate:

They don’t breed them like they used to
Marshall says putting his claw around
the shine all the children chromatic
spotless for every tomorrow they was
good kids never roaring just yearning
to be something grateful like I am
now all the violence beginning every-
body leaving their homes in embers
I think we could use a proper purge
Hang them all from the watertower
Like the bright book says that will
will learn them what the fuck maybe
they’ll find God and we need to start
with that little flame Jimmy, dawg.

“Just yearning / to be something grateful” is eloquent and heartbreaking, and using the word “fuck” in the same piece and using the word “embers” as both fact and metaphor, are among the many ways eloquence and heartbreak meet to bring back that “little flame.”

Most people who commit suicide are less alone than they think they are, and Anaphora has many characters. There are women and girls in this book, and Goodan doesn’t always clarify their roles or their relationships to anyone else. This lack of specificity is a useful device:

Some die and some
want to die those
are the facts
Jimmy says tossing
the rope from the
watertower none of
us are but a flame
fuck off says Mary
God’s on my side
not if you keep
screwing those breeds
says Jimmy shut up
says Annette you’re
half a one Jimmy
I say which half
you gonna hang?

Mary and Annette have turned up before, less chorus than a kind of necessary infill to the entirety of the project. No elegy is an island and this elegy is no exception.

Jimmy said everybody
hangs in hell so why not
get a head start?
Fuck Jimmy said Mary you
really know how to lift
a party Jimmy tied the knot said
I’ll see you all at the
watertower

“Tied the knot” is a vivid double entendre, and the watertower, a character that appears in the story these poems create, serves as an image for other built objects that violate the landscape. Designed and built by humans, like any reservation, their shapes, like the shapes of reservations, confine for a purpose capable of abetting harm.

“Tincture of time” is a phrase I first heard a wise friend say around 1995, the year Jimmy died. The words were a response to questions I had about processing grief. It is not surprising that Jimmy’s name went unspoken for many years because grief is sometimes so immense it can throttle thought and sound. Goodan’s poems accept, illuminate, and obliterate time itself, as the last poem declares with beautiful force:

Falling snow begins to shine
November Jimmy tucked into
the ground Joe Grady flame
I take a selfie at the watertower
the warning light strobing
and I think about god how
untranslatable his actions are
to the yearnings of our
little moments when we sway
grateful to feel it all
tomorrow and when we return to the
beginning of our calling
and remember the flourishings
and write them in a book
we say home is what is granted
and yet I am here
in the mended-out ghost town
to which our childhoods
will always belong

In Anaphora, Goodan once again earns his place where fine poetry is a living, breathing creation of hard-earned, essential grace.


Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →