One of Jessica L. Walsh’s many talents is starting her poems in medias res, folding readers into her narratives like a shot and remaking us by the end. In her new collection, “Book of Gods & Grudges,” Walsh flings us at her narrative like starfish into an ocean. We become part of her work, until the tide of her poetry plants us back onto the beaches of our own lives, reshaped. She knows we’ve been through tragedy, experienced pain, searched for ways to bear open wounds we cannot close. Walsh deftly reaches into the heart of our insecurities, fears and failures and paints with their blood on every page, warning us not to turn on the sunshine: “Going high gets no one out of bed.” Here, no one is safe from their own behaviors and choices. In the words of novelist Anne Lamott, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Walsh does just that: inventories her pain, keeps tabs on those she mistakenly trusted, and spins protective walls from spite that keep her on guard, on the other side of everything that’s harmed her, that’s harmed us.
The landscape of Walsh’s compelling collection is fraught, perilous. Decidedly female and filled with fighting, both internal and external, the author envelops the reader in stories of dying young, of growing up in a small town with guns, knives, Confederate flags, drugs. Of child abuse and its aftermath. Of middle age and cancer. Of bone marrow gone bad. Of ancestry with bitter blood lines. Who among us wouldn’t hold grudges in this world? And how would we get by without them? “My being alive is the middle finger I never put down—” she explains in the poem “When My Daughter Tells Me I Was Never Punk,” and that she arrived at this moment of wife and mother “by my fucking teeth.” And, of course, by keeping score:
What I am saying is I have receipts.
You who owe me
favors, apologies, money,
your name is here.
This is the book
in which I tally slights.
Every wretched feeling’s earned, becomes the lifeblood of her and our survival. How much more important these feelings become when there’s not much else to cling to; for this collection asks us to question what belongs to us and what doesn’t. As the narrator herself searches, she asserts that what’s hers is so meager that “I know only not this.” For “I live through half-raptures,” watching others manage glory as she’s left behind.
“Book of Gods & Grudges” is an ode to anger, and an advisory against getting our hopes up. All songs in this collection are conceived in a minor key, but sung with a booming, lyrical voice. Don’t tempt the gods, but don’t anger them, either. Don’t ignore the gods, but don’t pay them too much attention. Hold everyone accountable. Walsh even implicates the narrator: “Me I’m full of ghosts to burn” she admits, blaming herself for what she didn’t intend and could not have foreseen. “I heard I was the last person one guy talked to, /and I have never stopped knowing I killed him /with an embarrassed twenty and a good luck, man” she writes of a guy with a drug habit in need of a handout. No good deed goes unpunished —and another emotional wall erects itself. We search for reasons and scapegoats, for some kind of explanation, motive, meaning. “We are not from good people” she confesses in “No Trees for Shade,” even as some members of her family overcome the greatest of odds to be good. She soaks in self-blame: “I could stop this.” But we understand it’s more painful to try.
Even the helpers hurt. And the inevitable grudges are born: “Let’s call this surrender. /The end of trying, it’s being born again.” We wonder where the narrator goes to catch herself when she’s frenzied by trying to save everyone else. In “Call It Self Care,” she seeks a therapist for a desperate, brief hiatus from the world’s brutality: “A year ago I came to pay someone /to pretend I am visible one hour a week.” But the therapist neglects her duty, fails by remembering little of what the narrator says, and offers her the same handouts more than once. The therapist can’t be bothered. The patient comes to worry for the therapist rather than the other way around: “What I came to cure, I instead perfect,” she tells us. Another wall she shouldn’t have to build.
Even families become reason for retreat. “In Collection” tells the story of adult siblings of an older generation performatively mourning over their monster of a father, with kitty litter in an urn instead of human ashes. “Money’s tight,” the siblings say, all the time knowing they’ll never be back for what was left of the barbarian who’d sexually abused them as children. The patriarch left his trailer to his daughter, the one “he fucked the most”; she sold it for heroin, and “when it was gone, /she licked the inside of the bag /until it opened at the seams.” No tangible trace remained, as if to make sure his ashes wouldn’t reanimate, but the emotional damage had already had its way with her mind and heart. Walls built from ashes, from drugs, from pain. What else is left?
Ancestral battles. Current battles. Danger around every bend. Do not allow the enemy surprise, whether without or within. What do we do when we can’t live this way, but also can’t live in the alternative? “Book of Gods & Grudges” deftly navigates this conundrum: “Each day I say now we are fine. /Let the record show I believed it /and knew all along I was wrong.” By this tightrope, we hang on. “By [our] fucking teeth.”
“Book of Gods & Grudges”
By Jessica L. Walsh
Glenview: Glass Lyre Press, 81 pages, $16
Elizabeth Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry books The Lost Positive (forthcoming from BlazeVOX Books), The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018) and the prose/poetry chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared in Pleiades, Rust + Moth, The Rumpus, [PANK], and elsewhere. Elizabeth’s work can be found at elizabethstraussfriedman.com.