The Book of Goodbyes
by Jillian Weise
BOA Editions, $16.00 paperback
Jillian Weise’s first collection of poetry following her debut, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, has certainly arrived with a lot of fanfare. Winner of the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award and James Laughlin Award in 2013, this collection quickly made its way onto many best-of lists including those of NPR and Publisher’s Weekly. When these kinds of lights and sirens go off around an author, especially one whose work I’ve previously enjoyed, it’s hard to not take notice, and I’m both thrilled and a little terrified by what has emerged in this collection. The poems demand attention without raising their voices or attempting to sound profound through philosophical bluster. They’re calm, yet urgent, and I found myself knotted up by their honesty and directness, which often implicate the reader through the use of the second-person. By the end of the book, I had been brought firmly into the situation of many characters, some of whom are surprisingly dynamic for a book that seems to address a limited, though unspecified, window of time. While The Book of Goodbyes could be reductively described as a project collection which centers around an amputee mistress in an affair with an older writer, it much more largely demonstrates a remarkable range of modes and styles which highlight loneliness and longing in unexpected ways. The humor and confidence of Weise’s voice in these poems imbues both grace and poise to an unsavory relationship built out of loneliness. As a result, the potentially taboo subject matter is rendered utterly relatable and approachable while never crossing over into the realm of sentimental self-pity. As a result, the empathy I felt as a reader overwhelmed a relationship that could otherwise have been reduced to folly, a bad idea, a mistake: just another failed romance, nothing new in the world or literature. This book is fresh, it’s exciting, and it’s powerful poetry.
As I’ve said, though, this book has a much larger scope and importance than the case study of an affair. While containing no titular poem, no legendary book of goodbyes to be written or cracked by any characters, the emotional weight of goodbyes can be felt throughout the collection. The implications of goodbyes are all around. For what is a goodbye, but a bittersweet acknowledgement of departure? In the moment when something or someone is lost (even if temporarily), a void is created for either one or all parties as their lives are now less whole. Loneliness encroaches. Goodbyes, which can be notoriously difficult, are also part of a process, often constructed from a series of gestures. The poem “Goodbyes” concludes with a violent gesture to define its titular subject:
They were drinking and someone
killed a wild boar and someone
said, “Hey look, I put my hand
in it.” Saying goodbye is like that.
You put your hand in it and then
you take your hand back.
The Book of Goodbyes presents a sophisticated array of longings that bring in the story of a philosophical, brooding South-American finch named Marcel who longs to be with his estranged love, Kate. Longing appears in the form of a heartbreaking and expansive elegy for Zahra Baker, a young girl with a prosthetic leg and hearing aid who went missing in North Carolina in 2010. But most prominently, we see it in the ill-fated relationship between the central speaker, the lover she refers to as “Big Logos,” and the unnamed, but clearly more public girlfriend of the aforementioned Big Logos.
The affair and love-triangle motif serve as the focus of the two largest sections of the book which contain all but four of the longer poems in the collection. These sections, rather indecorously, are simply titled One and Two and are separated with a three-poem Intermission (where we find the birds’ story) and finished with a Curtain Call entirely comprised of “Elegy for Zahra Baker.” In these poems, the loneliness and fear of isolation present a recurring justification for the speaker entering into an affair with an older poet. The poem “Decent Recipe for Tilapia” opens with the sense that the affair is a practical matter to eschew loneliness rather than a complicit act of betrayal:
Tell your back home friends it means nothing
and you will drop him as soon as you have
friends in the city. If you had more friends,
you would not sleep with him. If not him?
who would share your Tilapia? No beloved meal
begins, “Alone before a plate of fish…”
And it is that sad imagining of an empty dinner table, save for one plate of fish, one diner, that drives the relationship more than a romantic sense of love. The same poem later explains:
The laws of attraction are this: There are
no laws of attraction. A person likes
a person. Both parties like each other
and in each other enjoy being liked.
Admittedly, it’s a casualness that can come across as a bit callous or overly simplified at first, but in the larger context of the book, it feels like survival. Though not as central to this collection as her previous, the idea of atypical bodies, such as amputees, trying to live a both physically and emotionally fulfilled life (which could be seen as a fairly commonplace desire) drastically complicates the moral issues surrounding the choices Weise’s speaker makes. It becomes abundantly clear that when you are considered “other” by society, it’s considerably more difficult to express desire for or aspire to these normal conditions of happiness. There’s a natural feeling of inadequacy or at least separation, and nowhere is this better presented than in the early poem “The Ugly Law,” a dizzying history lesson that is simultaneously provocative, infuriating, and downright devastating in its examination of a common public ordinance that banned the “diseased, maimed, mutilated” or “deformed” from appearing in public under the penalty of law. The poem adopts the strategy of juxtaposing and even embedding direct quotes from an 1881 municipal ordinance into a contemplation of speaker’s own life in another century, making it clear that the history is far from dead (Chicago had such a law until 1974). Reading this poem, it’s easy to feel both guilty and woefully ignorant of our larger history of segregation and intolerance as the speaker moves between history and the present, transported by the knowledge of exclusion as a rule:
Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or
can I continue reading this? Will it affect my psyche
so that the next time Big Logos comes over
I will not be there in the room? Instead I will be
wandering a Chicago street in my dress with my
parasol as a cane, on the verge of arrest…
At the conclusion of the poem, the insecurities mount, this sense of helplessness builds until we see a woman nearly pleading for acknowledgement and acceptance from Big Logos as she tries to reason with her lover, “I am not poor. I am not even unsightly. What a pretty face/ I have I’ve been told. Big Logos, will you attest// to my sightlines? Is this all in the past? Why are you/ sleeping with me, anyway? Aren’t you afraid?”
The final question of fear punctuates the sense of inadequacy which appears to be resolved only by recognition from Big Logos, a character who largely remains a concept rather than a fully realized person, save a few exceptions near the end of the section Two. Big Logos, essentially “big logic,” serves more as a figure who can rationalize the speaker’s own worth and worthiness for love than as a true object for or source of affection. After all, if this were not the case, how could Weise’s central speaker—despite the protests of Big Logos himself—address the other woman, so personally, as she does in the pair of poems “Poem for His Girl” and “Poem for His Ex”? In these poems, the speaker entertains a fascination with the girlfriend and wants to know more about her, directly from her, to even go as far as helping this other woman pick out panties to wear for Big Logos. This is not despite, but as a result of the fact that the other woman is “his girl” and “his ex,” whereas the speaker is an interloper, a back-up, Girl #2. She wants to know what it’s like to be the girlfriend, to be normal, to be the one cheated on rather than the outsider, the secret. At one point in “Poem for His Ex,” she even has the audacity (and humor) to admit, “We tried not to talk/ about you. When we had to do it,/ I made him go to a dyke bar// so everyone would be on my side.” She confesses, “I asked him if you had two legs./ What was I thinking? Of course/ you have two legs.” She even goes as far as to ask the ex, “Does it make you feel better/ to know he cheated with a handicapped/ girl?” while later feeling unsure as to “why I’m using that word [handicapped]./ It demoralizes me.” There is the impression that, to the speaker, they simply shared Big Logos, and that in the sharing they now have common ground, can almost be friends.
As an extension of the unapologetic self-awareness and humor found in The Book of Goodbyes, we also see an acute awareness of Weise’s critics, bringing in a clear autobiographical touch and one more reason to feel self-conscious. The poem “Café Loop” imagines two such critics, roughly her peers (in the academic sense, rather than a poetic one), who have sat down to lambast the author as a writer, a representative of alternative bodies (Weise has, in interviews and poems, referred to herself and speaker as a “cyborg”), even her intelligence and personal character. While their commentary is filled with rumors, outright insults, and an arrogance that makes me want to write angry letters to English departments, it’s also rife with humor as such jealous disdain coincides with a light meal in a café. These two go back and forth between insult and their lunch order as if character assassination and condescension are as unremarkable as a drink order and light meal, all the while spewing pretentious intellectual drivel:
[…]How can she write
Like she’s writing for the whole group?
I mean really. It’s kind of disgusting.
It’s kind of offensive. It’s kind of
a commodification of the subaltern
identity. Should we have wine?
Let’s have something light. It makes
you wonder how she lives with herself.
It’s hard to recall another recent poem that has manifested characters so comically inconsequential, yet also so enraging. While this isn’t one of the second-person poems, it still leaves me seething, makes me take the insults personally.
I can imagine it’s also with these critics in mind, people who scoff at the idea that her poems have speakers, that Weise has brought in the poems which make up the sections Intermission and Curtain Call into The Book of Goodbyes. While collectively, these two sections combine for just four poems in the collection, they still roughly comprise forty percent of the content and help break free of the narrative presented in One and Two, thus providing valuable variety. After making it through One, it would be somewhat natural to try to see Intermission’s story of “Tiny and Courageous Finches” as an autobiographical allegory, but good luck trying that. This story has many of the themes of longing and desire for companionship that we find throughout the rest of the collection, but these poems ultimately feel independent of the Big Logos poems. We are taken to “Iguazú Falls, the Argentine side,” where young Bitto and the older Marcel entertain tourists while sharing a cave. Bitto has his love, Lydia to keep a nest. Chipper and spiritual, he thinks of cultivating his domestic life, building things like a mantle, but Marcel, who soon becomes the focus of this section, is lost, adrift, moody and intellectual. He dreams of collecting “his index of every time/ a finch appears in print[…]into an anthology, which all/ finches will read with interest.” Yet ultimately, we seem him pleading to his estranged love Kate, employed by the Minister of Finches, to return if she desires, but he seems to have no agency in fulfilling this desire, only finding empty solace in other birds, some days so melancholy that he does not leave the cave: “Daily I withhold from one million/ strangers, though they be willing.” The best he can do is hope to resurrect the love in some new way:
Today the gauchos arrived and they want
me to ride on the brim of their sombreros
to the ranch and maybe I will find me there
a finch who reminds me of you and you
will have returned to me.
The other departure from the Big Logos poems comes at the end of the collection with Curtain Call’s lone poem “Elegy for Zahra Baker,” a dizzying meditation on a young amputee who disappeared in North Carolina in 2010. The poem, constructed of prose snippets only a few sentences long, alternates between scraps of the media coverage surrounding the missing girl and personal meditations on everything from past relationships, self-definition as a cyborg, the burden of identities, alternative pornographic websites, an attic full of fake legs, and even the question “What is pretty?” set alone. These paragraphs are widely spaced on the page, placing large breaths between them and letting the associative moments be absorbed slowly. The poem is perplexing and chilling, sympathetic, mournful, and encouraging to a degree of high tragedy as the speaker tries to inspire Zahra have faith in a future that the girl will never experience, “Zahra: You’ll get better at passing. It’s a pain in the ass, I know. You’ll learn, I promise. Just make it out of the woods.”
The Book of Goodbyes contains a diverse compendium of loss, but also aftermath. Some characters grow and show great grace, others break down or embarrass themselves as they lose control over their relationships. There are absurd dramatic gestures that exile lovers, such as in “Semi Semi Dash” where Big Logos has constructed a 900-megahertz superconductor out of magnets to keep the speaker away, as it would rip the metal from her body. These poems can be sultry, fearful, confrontational, at the same time cerebral and playful, but they always deliver a captivating voice and ample imagination. I hope that more readers continue to welcome this book into their lives. Say Hello to a brilliant collection of poetry. I have the feeling it’s not going anywhere for quite some time.