KR Reviews

On Spill by Kelle Groom

Tallahassee, FL: Anhinga Press, 2017. 118 pages. $20.00.

What does it mean to spill? Kelle Groom’s latest collection offers us a few homophonic versions of this word—to spill, as in party foul; to spill as in, divulge, Spill your heart out; or, by extension, the two of these things combined, forming the spills of our words cascading into one another, the spills of our inebriated language. The effect is one of a rolling, intentional movement, whether quickened or slowed. Within this range of voice and language, Groom’s latest collection offers to us speakers who contemplate her endless world of possibility within the shallows and depths of love.

Love can often feel broken. The reader of this collection, then, is forced to contemplate Groom’s speaker’s world of love in broken forms, as in “The Great Nebula of Orion,” which recounts a shark being fished from the ocean by a tourist. The poem is highly caesuraed, with indentations within the lines, and peppered with second-guess phrases like “I doubt it will be a shark but there it is, head whipping back & forth, / what drowning is for me” or “Does the shark let the boy reach inside.” This act of violence upon this nongendered shark is, thus, not simply a fisherman’s leisure activity, but an extended metaphor for the speaker’s relationships. Imagery, like we see within this poem, and throughout this collection, focuses on the oceanic, the edge of the tides, the possibility of drift or setting sail. And here, from Merriam Webster, is yet another definition of spill: to relieve a sail from the pressure of the wind so as to reef or furl it.

The list, again, runneth over syntax, in the poem, “Message on a Coffee Cup,” where Groom’s speaker passes by a coffee cup, then, stepping over some “newly dead” in the “stepping dark,” this speaker sees a man at the “. . . Citgo / beside the Bottoms Up bar,” then wants to be seen by him:

a man who brings home sweets digging
in from the force of driving waves, planks
with dark nails, shinnying doors . . .

The object of desire—in this case, what appears to be a sexy fisherman—becomes further fantasized in nonsensical love as Groom’s initial quickened syntax, follow this long, meandering sentence, only to arrive with “frilly-tailed creatures pop-out, see me, the shadow,” so that a new sentence (the imperative see me) is lumped in between commas, among a cascade of thoughts and imagery, as these thoughts crash into the terceted poem’s final one line, finished off with an internal rhyme. Otherworldly confusion, along with form, then, mimic the encounters of what it’s like when we see someone and immediately fall in love with them (and don’t tell me you haven’t been there).

More syntactically logical poems balance the collection, such as Groom’s love poem for Larry Levis titled “May Day,” in which the grocery-shopping speaker encounters one of Levis’s poems in a magazine, reflecting that digesting the poem was “like having had sex & dressing too quickly.” The speaker then goes about her daily errands: laundry, walking through the parking lot, carrying the groceries back to her place through a fog, but not before noticing “spider / Webs hanging down like the beards or braided / ponytails of old bikers,” noticing the fog, “full of cool water, breathing like drinking,”  and noticing “four pink flowering trees, like Sisters.” Levis, then, through his verse, enlivens this speaker into a better existence, sensory and detailed.

But where Groom most succeeds in this collection is within her most permeable poems, those poems in which the reader is forced to interpret with such broken information.  The poem “My Life is Not a Riding a School” starts with a scene of a drunk driver driving down “a lightless country road” as “Heavy thrown things hit / the sides of the van     thudding.” Not only are the headlights turned off but the driver is laughing, which creates a sense of impending doom from the very beginning of this poem. The speaker retreats into her thoughts, imagining Spiderman adhering to this van, “Or just the dark made manifest     attacking us.” From here, and this is the most exciting thing Groom did for me in this collection, the speaker breaks apart the words: “Manifest struck by the hand / palpable    evident    a hand + akin to,” then takes each definition, leading into new thought, a new word, broken up into its etymology:

Crave is to demand what’s right   To beg   The synonym is desire
Compulsion: that which compels   driving force   Compel:
together + to drive   see FELT

and a few lines later,

Surrender: up + to render   To give up possession of   to abandon
to give oneself up to another’s power esp. a prisoner—
why is that so appealing like sleeping?

When we finish, this poem has literally torn itself apart in a rabbit hole of language, broken. The result for the reader is a highly successful battering of language to translate a destructive relationship between Groom’s speaker, the passenger, and the dangerous “he,” the driver of this van.

Groom offers us a collection of poems that are at once connected and disjointed. Her variations of syntax and language mirror love and its many consequences. An early poem, “42,” about the demolition of a beach house, serves not only as an extended metaphor, but also as a demolition of language through its lack of logical syntax, as when we see, “all / the tops spinning, the strength you were given with a child / in your arms will never let go.” Here, we are exposed to possibility: what is it that’s not letting go? Syntactically, it’s the noun strength, but it appears among a list, so is it all these things? Should I, as a reader, read it as simply the arms not letting go? I don’t—because the creation of these questions is what gives the poem, and this collection, its power.

With such different contemplations, with forms broken as well as intact, the reader is forced to ask what Groom is ultimately saying about love in her collection. One of her later poems in the collection, “Earth Stars,” may help to answer this question. In it, the speaker is in the hospital, getting strapped down, ready for labor:

            Dwell is to lead astray
to hinder    delay     what am I late for
curled up in myself ready to spill

To spill, then, is what happens when we allow ourselves into love, into another human being. And much like her oceanic images, Groom’s poems are open and pouring.

John Bonanni
John Bonanni lives on Cape Cod, MA, where he serves as editor for the Cape Cod Poetry Review. He is the recipient of a scholarship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and a residency from AS220 in Providence, RI. His poems have appeared in Assaracus, CutBank, Hayden's Ferry Review, Hobart, Prairie Schooner, Seattle Review, and Washington Square Review.