18
Feb
19

On Katie Ford’s If You Have to Go

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Katie Ford’s fourth collection of poetry (and fourth with Graywolf Press), If You Have to Go, revolves around a break up with her partner of many years. The book consists of four sections, with section “II: The Addresses” comprising the bulk of the poems. In this section, there is a prefatory four-line poem that is followed by 39 sonnet-shaped poems that behave as a crown of sonnets. That is, each poem has three four-line stanzas and a couplet, which occasionally rhymes, and some aspect from the couplet is included in the following sonnet’s opening line. Sometimes the repeated aspect from the couplet is a line or phrase, an altered version of a line or a phrase, or a word from within the couplet. For example, the end of sonnet 34 ends, “Yet, lighting candles – / it’s how I went on,” and sonnet 35 begins, “By candlelight the house went down.” This type of linking not only aids in thematic flow of the section and book, but aids in the associative thinking of the speaker. The direction of thought shifts but with the same repeated aspect. For instance, while sonnets 34 and 35 share images of light and home, sonnet 34 is concerned with whether to burn the home down (where the “home” is also symbol for the writer’s body, as established in the book’s opening poem “In the Hearth”), and what to do with its ashes, but sonnet 35 turns the focus on how to deal with the ghost of the departed husband. This associative linking and thinking are vital as section II is a monologue, and to me, it appears to be an internal monologue of the writer sorting out her new life, or filling in the emptiness of lost love. This internal monologue also at times leads to abstract language, some contorted syntax, and multiple internal voices.

The opening lines of If You Have to Go are, “Of life’s abundant confusions / this does not partake” (“In the Hearth”). This is a perilous start, as the reader has nothing concrete to attach to and the “this” is ambiguous. However, it situates the reader with the abstractions we commonly use when thinking, especially during a break up with a lover. The reader, however, will later learn that “this” refers to all that surrounds her break up and the empty feeling that accompanies it. This abstract language also seemingly conjures past religious poets, like John Donne, who might use phrases like “abundant confusions” or use the word “partake.” The antiquated language of forlornness, however, is contrasted with images from the physical world.

Because of the contrasting languages of the internal and external, the images appear more evocative. Consider the opening of the first sonnet-shaped poem in section II:

     Empty with me, though here I am, I saw
     some soul set my meal with dream, then leave

It’s a challenge to visualize what it is happening at first because there is nothing really concrete. If the first line included “I am” before “Empty,” the reader gets a better sense of what is happening, but still the lines are a bit vague. Though the reader catches on to the fact that the narrator is talking to herself, and she represents herself with both the objective and subjective first-person pronouns, “me” and “I.” She is acted on and acts, to some extent. She “saw / some soul,” but is it a metaphysical soul or a person? And why “some” instead of someone more specific? Perhaps it’s because she’s in deep depression. But then this happens in lines 3-8:

     a gift for me: a ten-toothed comb to rake what’s dead
     from me until the comb’s carved medieval scene 

     where bend two horses, water-consoled,
     adds to me the hope of that number.
     My own comb’s a lime-shined prairie
     with the grass of plastic acres. 

The comb with all of its details brings her out of her internal despair and gives her a form of external hope. A hope she can physically hold on to, and a comb of hope that will accrue more meaning, as it is often referenced throughout section II. The image resolves what the abstract cannot portray.

The point I am trying to get at is risk. Ford risks using antiquated words and syntax, as well as abstraction. These uses are what every creative writing teacher (and composition teacher) tells his or her students not to do. Teachers stress writing in today’s language and with images to engage the reader. Ford’s risks, however, pay off as she fully renders one human’s broken-hearted condition by balancing the inexpressible internal with the sensual external, and as she tries to find stability through a resolvable regularity of abstraction and image. In addition, by bringing in the antiquated language, she speaks to the past and reminds the reader that writing of loss is timeless and universal. In If You Have to Go, Katie Ford creates a language and poetics for vulnerability. //

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Ford, Katie. If You Have to Go. Graywolf Press, 2018.//

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