WHITEOUT, Jessica Goodfellow, University of Alaska Press, 2017
I write this to praise Jessica Goodfellow‘s poetry in WHITEOUT.
Poetry is the intertwining of form and content. And, I would argue, that in the best poems you cannot separate those things, that the form presents the content in a way that makes the content its most moving version of its self.
On the content level, Goodfellow expresses a nuanced grief, missing someone you barely know but whose absence torques the people around you, affecting how they interact with the world but also you. How the absence of an uncle translates into silence in her immediate family. Goodfellow’s main vehicle for her metaphors about grief, for this different sense of absence or missing, is the mountain Denali, its white faces, its cloud cover, the snow, the crevasse, the thunderous history of a glacier.
As for music, for form, Goodfellow presents a number of nonce forms, as well as sonnots of different varieties, all of which perfectly fit what they are trying to say. (There is at least one absolutely rigorous pantoum, as well.) Additionally, at the level of word and syllable, Goodfellow has rounded up so many words which fit her content but also contain the letters UNCLE in order; she uses them for poem titles so that she spells the absence of her uncle out of “uncle”: “Unconsoled”, “Uncalculable”, “Uncollected”, “Uncleaved”, “Unreachable”.
But this focus on single words is not limited to permutations of “uncle”. Goodfellow’s poems are full of text where everyword carries weight, where the words used are so strong they make articles and pronouns pale next to them—until you realize there are barely any of that type of word in the poem. In “The Relief Map Fails to Relieve”, Goodfellow writes
All maps view their subjects from above,
while a glacier glissandos always downward—
gouging as it goes, unzipping the underworld.
The void’s already hoisted its No Vacancy sign.
All those still corseted by torsos cannot cross,
cannot join the vacated in their icy cradles.
In addition to the high frequency of strong words, this example shows off Goodfellow’s amazing ear for consonance and assonance whose presence uplifts the meaning of the lines rather than skewing them like the grammar of a sentence rearranged to provide an end word with the proper rhyme.
But there is much more in this collection than I have touched on. There are the poems dissecting what it means to have no body recovered, in funeral, in grief, in how the living interact with the world. I especially enjoyed how, in “Heresy”, Goodfellow offers a different relation for body and soul, including
Imagine the body as irritant, a grain of sand inside
an oyster that conjures in response a cosmic pearl.
Let the soul be the glow-in-the-dark dark.
You who hate this proposal must never
have lost somebody whose body was never
recovered. You want the body as cage
that releases, finally, the soul…
…You see the soul as map
of the body’s limited terrain; I see the body
as map of the measureless parish of soul.
There are poems about what grief does to a family, about the role of pictures, painted and photographed, in that doing. In every poem, there is a mountain, especially “The Fold”, which Goodfellow ends thusly:
it is a matter
of which side you are on,
and if you have no body—
you are on neither side.
You are the fold,
the stylus of silence
on which hinges both
our Cartesian cathedral
and the vertex of our vortex.
Chasm and scaffold,
cornice and crevasse,
the steep pitch of life
and its inverse, its obverse.
the edge. Welcome
to our fold.
The alliteration, the punning—or the use of all possible connotations of a word, together—the transition between words closely-tied by sound and letters, all of which is wielded to say something about life. This is Goodfellow’s amazing artistry.