March 2013

Cortney Bledsoe


A Raft of Grief by Chelsea Rathburn

Rathburn's second collection A Raft of Grief begins with the title poem, which describes a desire to be able to get rid of grief in a physical way:

If only there were a boat,
low and long and loaded
with all we'd brought or built:
the fatal inattentions,
anxieties and tics
that time had sanctified,
our good and bad intentions

Rathburn's writing is clear and clean, and in this poem about grief, which could easily lapse into melodrama, she avoids melodramatic language, though at times one does wish she'd take risks with her language to avoid flatness; there's a generality in her descriptions that smacks of caution.

"Fire Ants" is a vivid description of a childhood memory:

Squatting in the coppery mud of the drainage ditch
behind my cousin's house, we searched for fish,
saw none. We found a speckled frog instead,
un-spooling a long, gelatinous thread
of black eggs in the water...

The children's exploration is interrupted by "a blaze of pain," as they're attacked by fire ants. Rathburn's discoveries of the natural world then shift to discoveries about herself, "I remember having a kind of reverence / for the whole affair," she continues. She shows off her injuries and drinks in the attention, eventually missing the welts after they've healed.

Some of the more inventive poems in the book are a series of eclogues, which is a classical form of pastoral poetry. Rathburn's pastoral scenes are modern -- the poet's life rather than the shepherd's. "Eclogue in a Café" is a dialogue about dealing with loud children in public. "Eclogue with Random Regret" is about the word Regret. "Eclogue with a Line from a Postcard" deals with the deterioration of a relationship in a dialogue:

Is traveling the only thing left that's safe
for us to talk about? We're only civil
discussing photos of monuments.

Civil? You nearly took my head off
when I said I liked Munich more than Prague.

Rathburn explores ideas of experience and duality with humor, at times, and pathos, "Were we / ever really seeing the same thing? // You sound like a college kid high for the first time." Rathburn reveals her own perceived failing as a too-introverted person; during this experience, she felt isolated, withdrawn, and her partner blames her for this. It's a revealing and powerful poem. "Acquisitions" is a poem about building the mythology of a relationship, also through shared experiences, "Having learned each other's bodies and habits, / we turn, improbably, to Polish." As can be expected, they struggle, though there is something romantic about the shared experience of the struggle, and she finds that this actually accomplishes as much or maybe more for the relationship as learning the language would.

Rathburn's poems are, at times, playful and are always easily relatable. Her poems are snapshots into her experiences, and at times, rise above the page to reflect universality. She has set her grief off upon the raft, which is this collection. Let's hope it brings solace.

A Raft of Grief by Chelsea Rathburn
Autumn House Press
ISBN: 978-1932870794
88 pages