This review was originally posted at gnathic.
Beth Grindstaff completed her poetry collection, This Fragile Husk (Finishing Line Press, 2016, cover art by Beth), to the appreciation of her adoring friends and fans––people like me. I first encountered Beth through the social networking platform called Tumblr. Her blog, paradigmpoet, was a haven in a storm of social media. Beth is one of those people who have made me thankful for slogging through the social media experience. The poems she posted on that blog were a source of inspiration for me. Beth’s voice was always clear and strong. She is, and has been since the time I encountered her, a warrior. I have often addressed her as such––”Hey, warrior woman!”––and she graciously accepts the moniker. When I first called her a warrior (and I was not the first to do so), I had no idea how much of a warrior she was to become. I do not think she did, either.
As I fell out of love with Tumblr’s platform, I made sure to keep in contact with Beth. We sent emails and even wrote letters through the U.S. Mail. We sent each other poems and poured our hearts out on the paper and digital pages, knowing we would keep each others’ confidences. Very soon into that period, Beth was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She explained the processes she was going through in her letters in heart-wrenching detail. Ever the warrior, her voice remained strong––even as she grieved, even as she railed against the Fates. She would document long bicycle rides she had begun to take and which provided her a kind of physical relief. She would go to work in the midst of a snowstorm because she knew her boss depended on her. And she would express thanks for her true love and concern for the effect this journey with MS would have on the both of them. Beth is strong. Beth is giving. Beth is a warrior.
As I read the poems in her latest publication, This Fragile Husk, I remembered how Beth expressed to me that her poems were changing, that her voice was changing. Beth has always had a gift for depicting the tragedy-and-beauty sushi roll that is the world around us. She has performed her poems before groups of people who I can only imagine must have listened in astonished silence. So when I prepared to read the twenty-two poems in this collection, I was excited. Knowing some of what Beth has been going through by following her Instagram posts, I expected this book of poems to sing in a new voice. And this book of poems does sing in the way a cello sings. The only proper accompaniment to these poems is a solo cellist laboring lovingly over J.S. Bach’s cello suites, one by one.
The collection opens with her poem “Once”. As it begins to unfurl it hesitates, reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s “How She Bowed to Her Brother”, with periods not commas, ends that are not endings but stops, like stumbling or catching your breath before you embark with trepidation. Every kind of cracking sound exists in this poem, porcelain, skull, leaking vessel, creaking wood. The poet is looking at herself in the mirror of a lake, seeing the myriad aspects that make up her entirety. She finds it, the myth as proof, and moves through this entirety, using that mirrored surface to see into the past and maybe a distance into the future, but always seeing her present.
Beth goes on to envision the forked tongue of the horizon in her poem “Everything, everything” where, with repetition and subtle alliteration, her will and the weight of things must yield somehow to worship and memory of winter. She becomes a bird of her self crashing into a false sky in “The way I want to be gone”. Here, she indulges on the edge of hopelessness but never drowns. She knows the bruises but never ceases to persevere; she wait[s] like silt in the throat of a storm. The reader senses eternity.
Beth maneuvers through the complicated mourning of loved ones in poems like “Granny”, “Legacy”, “Planting Tomatoes”, “For Cyndie”, and “To my father, on the six-year anniversary of his death”; and the reader cannot help but share this painful grief with Beth because of our vowels and a kind of shared blood that insists in her phrasing. Where she mourns in short line-lengths, the echo of memory extends the verses. And, in a way, her mourning culminates in her “Death Sutra”. The poem takes you away to places that unfold like the most familiar nightmare that you’ve somehow come to love. Every stanza begins [b]eyond colors and sensations and we are left wandering with Beth yet somehow remembered, known.
She coaxes you through the pain of her disease in poems like “Tales of a hard winter (March 7th)”, “Findings of demyelinating disease persist”, or “Diagnosis” which give you her blinding ache[s], her body capsized by pain, her silences [t]o mourn what is to come. In these recollections she is painstaking, giving the reader sensory details (dog’s velvet fur and Bartlett pears blooming, the ragged sermons of winter and the needle … pulled) familiar, yet not necessarily what you might have noticed had you lived it. And always the careful attention to phrasing, the delicate usage of language (loss of mothering bone/to the cold), and the associations made by ones who, like Beth, see the world with eyes more open and arms spread wider–these things are evident throughout Beth’s verses.
Ever present in these poems is the warrior voice. Beth has changed, but Beth remains. The warrior in her voice has always expressed the anguish of life as she pressed on through battles, and her latest battle has only given her more of herself, more ammunition to use in her battle. Beth’s poems approach the world with an elegance and a perceptiveness that readers will understand more with each reading. Her poetry gives you Beth’s essence and Beth’s presence. A strong present it is.