Kathleen McGookey’s words are brave. She begins her latest collection, Stay, with a quote by Gary Young: “The worst thing you can imagine is not the worst thing that can happen to you.” And yet, worse for McGookey translates to great for the reader. Her bravery comes across on every page, not as a battle cry or manifesto, but slowly, quietly, in the most unassuming way. The vulnerability permeating each poem is, perhaps, the bravest words can be.
As a woman who relates to the early poems in Stay, I am immediately hooked. The speaker, an adult woman, presumably McGookey herself, is surrounded by children and isn’t sure she wants one. And she isn’t shy about revealing her hesitancies. She fears what many women fear, but which most of us are ashamed to say aloud: that if she couldn’t even grow vegetables, how could she possibly care for a child? Or worse, that she isn’t the heroine of her own story.
McGookey presents these fears unflinchingly through a combination of metaphor, imagery, and direct narrative. In a first person poem, “More Expectations,” the speaker and her partner wonder what they are saving or waiting for in life, the first indication in the collection our heroine might be trying to have a child: “We’d picnicked near a field, not golden and alive in the wind, but plowed and not yet planted, not opportunity, just work, hard work and the unelegant sun.” This desolate nature imagery resurfaces in “The Accident,” when a childless wife wonders if she has made the right choice by not having kids: “Red dust from the road gathered in her kitchen’s corners while she dreamed of ropes and coyotes.”
Just in case we miss these implications, McGookey occasionally tells it like it is, the second poem in the collection opening boldly with: “The heroine doesn’t know if she wants a child. What kind of story is this?” (“Lament”). She further compounds her uncertainty by connecting to the world around her too, as she shocks the reader by ending what appears to be a simple poem about the night sky revealing: “Right now my friend is having a baby boy who is expected to die” (“Like Stars”). Her directness is both stunning and appreciated. And the fears she expresses must be common, because I am right there with her in every word although society tells us women we should not feel these things, should not say them aloud.
In keeping with the style of her previous work, McGookey writes entirely in prose poem form. This lends itself well to the confessional nature of each poem as she admits, “Writing’s more private than birth” (“Birth Poem”). Almost half the poems have single word titles, such as “Shallow,” “Wish,” “Waiting,” and “Onion,” implying simplicity. Yet, while each poem is intensely focused, the dichotomies of life and death, joy and sorrow, acceptance and anger, are anything but. Just as easily as McGookey confesses the forbidden complexities of life and womanhood, her fear shifts; maybe she does want a child, but maybe she can’t have one. New fears arise coated in grief as the poems progress through frustration, failed and then unexpectedly successful attempts to conceive, and the declining health and death of both her parents.
To be clear: while she expresses deep fears, the tone of her work is not fearful. Perhaps uncertain is a more appropriate term, or inquisitive. She crafts the poems in such a way that it seems she is consistently in control of her emotional experience. Especially intriguing is McGookey’s recurring personification of “My Anger.” The aptly titled poem near middle of the collection asserts, “Today I sent My Anger to yoga at 5 a.m... When she came home, she slammed the dishwasher and threw bruised apples and stale chips in our lunch bags.” As she struggles with her parents’ illness and her own mortality, she attempts to harness her anger in this way, willing it to submit to a series of yoga poses, or to a serving of coffee and chocolate, but with tempered success. Still, the poem itself is not angry. She describes the anger the was a psychiatrist might, asking you to envision your anger as some other being you could leave outside the door or lock in a box that you might move on with your life, free of this burden. Later, in section III of the collection, in the midst of a pastoral moment of description, she states matter of factly, “I almost forget My Anger out there in all that green” (“My Anger at Home”). McGookey is curiously aware of her own anger, allowing bits of beauty and peace to shine through even the most trying experiences.
Throughout the course of this collection, McGookey experiences the full span of the life cycle: from the birth of her first child to the illness and death of both her parents. “When would the gentleness come?” she asks, and we wonder the same (“Almost Sweet”). Somehow, it does. Not all at once, but as gentleness does, in small doses over time. By the end, we feel we have been through the trenches with McGookey, emerging on the other side where “grief is barely a shadow now” (“Here, Where I Am, in October”), where we hope to stay.