This Small Machine of Prayer by Beth Gordon is a collection of poems that takes a hard look at death and its aftermath. Experiencing a death, or multiple deaths, in your life will shift and alter how you interact with the world. Gordon begins her collection by looking at specific deaths and how they have changed the speaker’s own outlook on life and the world at large. This is not a collection written from an approach of pity, but rather one told from a perspective more akin to acceptance. This is simply how our world works, for better or worse. I feel like a part of me wants to reject this sentiment because deaths are so heart wrenching and world shattering, but I can’t deny that this is the natural order to our lives. We’re born with the guarantee that we’re going to die and it’s a breath of fresh air to have someone come in here and state the facts as simply as they are.
When I say tree, I mean your serious
eyes covered by last year’s pennies, I mean
mulberries dropping like rotted angels,
gray wood transformed into impressionist
– from “Elegy with Flying Tires”
“Elegy with Flying Tires” is the first poem in This Small Machine, and it sets the tone. This is a poem that gives us these solid snapshots of a life lived with those small mundane moments that create someone’s very existence, only to shatter our hopes that it’d turn out differently than what we expected. And isn’t that an analogy for life? So many of us think it’ll turn out differently than it has, but it doesn’t change our realities. The imagery in this poem—and by extension, the whole book—evoke such vivid and naturalistic emotions that it creates a wonderful medley in our minds. I think that’s what draws me so close to this collection: Gordon’s ability to elegantly paint these gorgeous scenes with her words. She is connecting me to these personal poems because they’re so specific to their own experiences; and by making them so specific to these moments, they then become universal in their examination of grief.
that our love was pure, & our mammal teeth
will transform into violin strings, we
will warble & wail & wake the dead each
morning, we are the lucky ones
– from “In Which We are Very Selfish Birds”
This Small Machine feels like the speaker is untethered, floating in the ether that’s not quite despair, but has its hand in the mechanics of how the world works. The natural progression of life inherently brings sadness, and while they’re not necessarily written in a melancholy tone, these poems do inhabit a matter-of-factness that weaves its way into all my vulnerable spots.