Review | Lie Awake Lake, by Beckian Fritz Goldberg
Surely, in the world of poetry, we do not need another book-length meditation on the death of a parent. Surely, no one would protest if we declared a moratorium on such books, especially those that not only mourn the parent’s death but also closely examine the physical body as it breaks down; books that investigate the corporeal place we call out from; books whose poems return relentlessly again and again to this subject, probing different perspectives and angles on the same scene, moment, and emotions, over and over, for sixty pages or more.
And yet, if we denied such books, then we would deny ourselves the pleasure of reading Lie Awake Lake; and we would not have our faith in poetry renewed at the inventiveness and imagination, the freshness and startling insights provided us by Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s language and vision. Yes, this book focuses on the central subject of a father’s passing, and it returns to this subject throughout all 71 pages, and yes, it does a lot of closeups on the body while interrogating desire and God, and no, there is nothing mundane, tedious, or old-hat about it.
Goldberg’s new work finds her simultaneously refining and departing from the style and voice she has worked to establish in such previous collections as Never Be the Horse and Body Betrayer. In those books the reader is placed, often without context, into startling and bizarre situations and scenes. It isn’t so much that Goldberg is trying to be overly weird, but rather that she demands that poems be interesting, unique, and exciting. And she succeeds in writing such poems. From Lie Awake Lake take, for example, “One More,” which begins:
. . . Okay. The poem imagines what this must be like, herding a baby cow through the urban streets of some unnamed metropolis, with plenty of “bastards // staring into its / lake-silt eye.” A poem with such an odd conceit will seem at first like an interruption of the book’s meditation, but Goldberg brings us back gracefully at the poem’s conclusion:
Readers might experience a little resistance that this unsettling moment comes in the middle of poems otherwise about something so serious as the death of a parent, but those willing to take the plunge will find themselves entranced by the premise of this poem, its clear-eyed description of this impossible, seemingly bizarre task. And then, when we get to the end of “One More,” we see that it comes back to the book’s obsession. Is dragging a cow through traffic a metaphor for the body as it dies? Is the “one more look” the last glance we have of our loved ones, or their last sighting of us? Maybe none of these readings is true, and perhaps they all oversimplify what stands as another unique perspective on the book’s central theme, a poem that deepens and enriches our understanding of what dying is like, what witnessing dying is like.
Goldberg’s collection is filled with such poems. In a book so committed to creativity, a reader would be hard-pressed to grow weary of the text and its serious re-examining of this central theme.
Perhaps “obsession” and “central theme” are too heavy-handed for the consciousness that Goldberg creates and evokes—those words seem overdetermined, while her poetry contains the spontaneity of someone who truly is obsessed, who finds that the thing she can’t get out of her mind recurs in everything she encounters, every thought she has, every memory she experiences. The way sometimes every song on the radio speaks to you of your situation, only because you’re reading yourself into what you encounter. This type of obsession—one that seems to crop up naturally everywhere Goldberg goes—is at work in all these poems, perhaps best captured in the poem “Eye.” This piece begins with a meditation established by the title—the physical and metaphysical eyeball, sight, and perception that allow the world to enter into us. The poem moves, then, and declares that the eye is “attracted to the water, the eater of doubles,” and the poem shifts from the eyeball to how the eye can absorb and believe falsity: “the sycamore reaching up / to heaven and the sycamore hanging down / to that heaven.” As the poem moves, the eye becomes the specific eye of the poet, but that eye also comes through genetics from her parents, and so we arrive again at the poet’s central theme, the parent’s death, but see it from a new perspective—a summer idyll on a lake that the poet is remembering: the lake is the eye and the memory floats there—replicated, doubled for the poet and reader.
The broad subject here, woven into all of the events of death, from picking up the ashes at the funeral home to fighting with siblings in the middle of the loss, the backdrop to all of this is the mystery of life. The poems always move to that unknowing, the contemplating of the universe and its unanswerables—where do we go after life, why are we given youth if only to have it betrayed, where do we turn for help when this grief is something that cannot be easily assuaged?
This engagement with mystery and complexity becomes the real obsession as the book develops and fully explores all of its concerns. And it locates this mystery of infinity not only in the cosmos, where we might readily assume it to lie, but right inside us, in the physical body. Here Goldberg fires up her most inventive language and imagery, illuminating the lives of animals, contemplating Dickinson’s grave, and reciting Keats’ epitaph to a dog named Blackie. Watch how the theme is now changed, transformed, as it is in the opening lines of “Blossom at the End of the Body”:
In this new book, Beckian Fritz Goldberg explores a difficult, personal subject, but never fails to illuminate it for the reader, not to mourn but to capture, witness, struggle to understand, and finally, transcend, make peace with. These are poems that reaffirm what we love about poetry and about the work of Goldberg—that imagery and imagination will render our messy lives clearer, more passionate, more beautiful, more joyful: this is us, our lives, but better for the artistry of a poet working at the top of her game.