Reviewed by Alicia Hoffman
Grim Honey by Jessica Barksdale
Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2021
Available at https://sheilanagigblog.com/sheila-na-gig-editions-quick-shopping/jessica-barksdale/
Exigence and Apocalypse
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
– William Faulkner
Like the horrific tragedy of 9/11, everyone will remember where they were when Covid19 shut down the globe. In early March 2020, days before nation-wide school closures, I was standing in a room full of maskless high schoolers, reviewing for the upcoming AP Language exams. We were studying the rhetorical concept of exigence, the idea that writers often come up against a situation that demands action or remedy. It is this impulse, this urgency, that often calls us to act, that prompts utterance, that begs us to better understand our place in the world’s vast and complicated chess game.
When the pandemic came like a queen swooping up our pawns and knocking our rooks to the ground, it felt, at the time, apocalyptic. Nothing so egregious or hyperbolic as the end times, but in the true sense of the word. In ancient Greek, apocalypse literally means an uncovering. And while the world was put on pause, the poets picked up their pens. The pandemic serves as both exigence and apocalypse in Jessica Barksdale’s poetry collection Grim Honey, a deft assemblage of poems revealing and uncovering an open generosity of spirit and a reckoning of the past that is never quite past.
In “Unripped” Barksdale writes everything hums, your hopes, your uncancelled plans /your dirt hidden under bookshelves and behind couches. Tuned to the music of her own life’s humming, Barksdale welcomes the sound and examines the crumbs. In “Cold Enough to Break Bones,” she ends with the telling lines: My skin shivers/and clacks with nerves and blood, everything, all at once, coming to the surface. And come up, it does. A father’s death, a mother’s abandonment, divorce, childhood, friendship, motherhood, cancer, aging, mortality. For Barksdale, the exigence of the pandemic, that unwelcome, slick guest…viral king, moves her to take stock and reckon with memory, loss, grief; all the particulars and pains that are the moving pieces of a life.
In “This is It,” she observes we don’t progress to human/but bound like pool balls/across the green velvet of experience. The image of experience as green velvet is an apt one for this collection, which manages to balance the tension and grit of life with a soft humor and beautiful grace. This is a poet who understands it is difficult to be alive, to interrogate with a clear lens the hard truth of the past. She doesn’t turn away from what is ugly, as in “Yahrtzeit,” which begins:
For hours, I gripped her body to mine
as she moaned and shat, moaned and shat.
Her daughter piped morphine into her mouth
as we waited for the hospice nurse.
Or take the following lines from “My Mother Read”:
Then, one year, long after one sister developed
diabetes and refused to cooperate
with doctors, hiding first Snickers
and then Smirnoff under her pillow,
and another threw up her dinner
into a Tupperware bowl she kept under her bed
and another gained and lost so much weight
she had three sizes of pants in the closet,
our mother put down her books
and turned to us, her children, one now dead,
one moved across the country, one resentful
of having had to watch it all.
In this collection, the reader witnesses Barksdale’s past come alive like a Faulknerian ghost haunts the living hours as she grapples and attempts reconciliation with time’s wounds. But through this sifting of hard memories, there are undercurrents of pure joy at being able to witness experience in all its blood and grit. This is a poet who loves the broken as well as the whole, those bursting through puberty in scary breast blooms, grease, and/hair. Those who hide in bathrooms with gushing periods. It is this love of the world in all its gory realness that illuminates the apt title of the collection. Though we may not invite the grim realities of the world, we can find soothing in their sweetness.
Grim Honey is an indispensable book. If we can take any honey from this grim year, it is that we have been given a necessary space to uncover our own life’s movements through time. This year invited us to reflect, and through Barksdale’s own recollections and reckonings, we are prompted to examine our own life, sans blindfold. If there is a lesson in this collection, it is that we can hold each experience dear. This book reminds us that what is bitter is sweet, and only when we acknowledge and hold space for our blunders and impasses can we move towards the endgame, as an arrow arcing up, never/complete, arrow flying, flying home.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Alicia Hoffman now lives, writes, and teaches in Rochester, New York. She received her MA in English/Creative Writing from SUNY Brockport and her MFA in Poetry at the Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of two poetry collections: Like Stardust in the Peat Moss (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Railroad Phoenix (Kelsay Books, 2017). Her new book, ANIMAL, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press (May 2021). Find out more at https://www.aliciamariehoffman.com.