You can look, or you can look away, and who am I
to tell you what to do with your monsters?
From “Substance and Accident”
Good Grief, the Ground, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and debut full-length collection from Margaret Ray, is a stupefyingly brilliant collection filled with poems that echo the thunderstorms that crop up like clockwork. Sometimes quietly shifting to darkness in a moment, sometimes threatening to descend into torrent, sometimes jarringly loud in their declarations, but always, always the poems in this collection demand our attention. Ray writes with precision, patience and a deeply intense vulnerability that haunt and linger with readers for days at a time.
Ray separates the collection into sections, each separated by the meteorological sign for thunderstorms and interrupted by interludes centering a fictional character, Wanda. The author describes the character as “at worst: an aspirational alter-ego, at best: a 21st century patron saint of curiosity and wonder.” By the time Wanda enters the world in the third interlude, aptly titled “Wanda in the World,” she is confronted by an undergraduate frustrated with “the outdated technology of her own body.” While Wanda longs to “sing the body to this student,” she recognizes that she would really be appealing to her own younger self and “knows to let young people//love the world in her own way.”
What makes the arc that Wanda travels particularly poignant is that her interludes contextualize the realizations that the speakers throughout Ray’s poems experience. Like Wanda, these speakers vacillate between young, disillusioned women and reflective, empowered voices rich with the wisdom of age. One of the things that struck me was how carefully balanced the reflective voices are, acknowledging faults and traumas without admonishment or pity, as in “Reader, I Married Him,” a wonderfully meta poem centering an abusive relationship. The speaker begins by acknowledging that she married “the first one who thought I was pretty enough/to give him a blowjob in the parking lot after school,” a man who “kept texting/in the middle of the night for months…/who punched walls, but never [her].”
As the poem progresses, the speaker explains that:
…I just have to take care
of something first, in the other room, a revision,
revise: I threw the book at him and slammed
the door on my way out. In a poem I can leave
when I should have…
This moment of metacommentary invites readers to encounter the poem as an intentional act of healing, a deliberate attempt at recreating memory to process and house trauma. Ray is, for me, at her best when she directly engages readers and acknowledges her use of poetry as a space capable of reorienting the self. “Substance and Accident” embodies this perfectly, first describing a car running over a six-foot alligator and the crowd rushing to look at the gory scene. While the crowd looks on, the speaker reflects: “We gaze at their bodies and wander away/to buy groceries, which is fine. I am not talking/about myths or human impact.” Instead, the speaker explains, she is “talking about disorientation…About spectacle.” The poem closes with a direct address to the reader in which the speaker tells readers that they can leave their monsters where they lay, “You can wash your hands. You can make dinner.”
Good Grief, the Ground is one of the most subtle collections I have read this year, yet every poem carries the potential for undoing. Again and again, I rushed to share poems as I read. Even as I write this, returning to the various pages I photographed and passed along to friends, I am stunned into silence. This is a collection readers will want to sit with, and also one they won’t want to put down.