Chelsea Rathburn’s ‘Raft of Grief’
Raft of Grief
by Chelsea Rathburn
Autumn House Press, $17.95 paperback, 88 pp.
It was good news when I heard that Chelsea Rathburn had published her second collection of poetry. Like many, I was a fan of her debut collection The Shifting Line, recipient of the 2005 Richard Wilbur award. Also, like many, I had taken note of her affinity and capacity for received forms, most notably the sonnet. Often, it would take me nearly until the end of a poem before I noticed the form, and not because she was working with a distant cousin or shadow of the traditional form. These were textbook sonnets, just not the brand that beats you over the head with their structure, something I appreciate. It takes a special type of skill and tact to take such a familiar, regular form and present it naturally, as a vehicle for a larger message. And although many of the poems in The Shifting Line were technically free verse, in both their brevity and regularity of both line and stanza, the formal guidance was rather clear.
It is, then, no surprise that Rathburn hasn’t turned her back on one of her more defining attributes. There are a number of formal pieces in this book, a few expertly-crafted sonnets, even a bop, but there are also a number of free forms and invented forms that allow for the openness of free verse, but also a distinct, deliberate control. The result of all this are very conversational, engaging poems that also feel tight. These poems don’t have many loose ends, but never sound stuffy with rigid, dogmatic prosody. But enough about Rathburn’s formal talents (for now). I feel like I’m pigeon-holing her, and most of this collection is comprised of agile free verse. So, without further delay, let’s take a closer look at A Raft of Grief. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?
At its core, A Raft of Grief presents a speaker who’s in the process of coping with the failure of her first marriage. Over the course of the book, she searches for catharsis, pouring over her past before experiencing a revival in finding love anew. Now, before I continue, just because I’ve chosen to use the word “revival” to describe the speaker’s transformation, I’m not trying to imply that the speaker is in some way incomplete on her own. In the context of this book though, it’s important to emphasize that the central speaker’s emotional journey (and subsequently the arc of the collection) is inextricably tied to the themes of companionship and family. Whether one chooses to see these situations as mirrors or amplifiers for the central speaker’s state of mind, she is most clearly represented through her memory and dissection of scenes in which she is rarely alone. Whether with friends or loved ones, these secondary characters provide a context for the poems and a window to the surrounding world.
The collection unfolds over the course of three sections. The first of these, entitled “Departures,” grounds us and sets the tone of the book. It opens with the titular poem that riffs off the familiar phrase “a raft of grief,” reimagining the raft that means “a great number” as a boat to carry grief away, imagining how, if this boat could only be real, “we’d push it off together/ then wade to opposite banks/ absolved at last, forever,/ buoyant, watching it go.” Despite all the grief that this speaker can dredge up, there is a kindness to this voice. Rather than anger, it conveys an acceptance of the past, where through revisiting these tribulations again, she might be able to free herself from their weight. And this desire to move on is not entirely self-centered. In the context of the first marriage, it’s hope that both people can continue with their lives with some measure of relief. Relative to other sections in this book, the relationship of the individual poems in this section to one another may not be immediately apparent. Instead, these poems have found a multitude of settings and subjects to create an emotional landscape wherein grief has a stunning effect. This grief comes from many places, such as a loved one’s alcoholism or a failed marriage ending, but that’s not the only note of this section or the only defining characteristic of the speaker. A number of poems have moments that start out lighthearted, only to reveal a more serious note, because, as the speaker mentions in “Sweet Nothings,” “We find that the old wounds feel a little softer/ with a laugh track, so the stories keep coming,” until, a much more serious punchline. “English Sonnet” even includes a childish joke nervously delivered by a stranger confronted on the Tube in London. And in the retelling of this joke, the speaker recognizes its failure, admitting the joke is, “Not funny. I know. But neither’s the story of us.” The variety of this section gives us a necessary familiarity with her voice, something absolutely necessary if we’re to truly appreciate the center section of this book.
On a few occasions already, I’ve mentioned the “central speaker” of these poems, and that’s primarily with a mind for the second section of the book, entitled “In Transit.” This is hands down the most cohesive section of the book. It is the most unrelenting and, at times, unsettling. It’s comprised almost entirely of eclogues in which the central speaker and her ex-husband recount their lengthy travel in Europe, but as you might guess, remember it rather differently. Now if you’re like me during my first reading of the book, you’re wondering, What the heck is an eclogue? An eclogue is an old European form that is both a pastoral and a dialogue, in which characters such as shepherds would converse. In Rathburn’s first book there were a number of formal poems with subjects rooted in antiquity, such as mythology. Here, Rathburn reinvigorates an old and somewhat obscure form in a very contemporary setting. As these two speakers banter about everything from train rides to a child chasing pigeons, there’s a clear tension in both attitudes and mannerisms. The ex-husband’s boyish well-wishing and terse, unsuccessful platitudes come in direct contrast to his more critical, analytical, and discontented wife. The tension can get thick and uncomfortable, but in the end, neither character is made a villain. Each voice has a complexity and richness I found engaging, even when I was cringing at their circumstances, and while there are two poems in this section that don’t immediately qualify as eclogues, if we consider that they’re back to back and each one takes a different speaker, the overall effect carries through. In fact, these poems are so interrelated that if Rathburn had decided to present this section as a single poem in titled sections, I think that could have been successful, but as it is, I prefer being able to take a big breath as I turn each page.
It is in the final section, “Arrivals,” where we can finally relax a bit. Here, the central speaker has moved into a new, happier relationship where, even when confronting small deaths, suicidal friends in low-rent hotels, or even nightmares, there is a stability and comfort. As a narrative, this section could be seen as a denouement if sorts. It’s also the section that feels the most like the speaker directly addressing a potential reader. In the previous sections, there were moments of this traditional poetic address, but often, especially in the second section, we felt as if we were listening in on two strangers during an intimate conversation (something that the speaker literally does on a few occasions). In some ways, I wonder why I feel this during the third section. There are still many poems of direct address to either the ex-husband or her husband, but they feel more public. Perhaps it’s that the first two sections have allowed her to understand and take control of her grief. Perhaps it’s because we’ve moved from the edginess of the second section into a much more free and varied series of poems, but these seem like the poems that jump off the page and ask to be read aloud, proclaimed. They’re less guarded, more open. Even when the speaker admits her confessional tendencies—early on in the poem “In Krakow,” the speaker admits that contrary to her new husband’s poems, most of hers have happened—these details come across as personal and human, rather than a cry for attention. While I may have opened the book and this review with an eye for the technical, I left with a strong sense of the human business that makes good poetry, the kind we can feel in our bodies. I find both range and depth within these poems both as a collection and individually. There’s a critical compassion as well that acknowledges “the fatal inattentions/ anxieties and tics…our good and bad intentions,” and despite what we lack, gives us a reason to stay afloat.