Review by Patrice Boyer Claeys
Get Up Said the World
(Cervena Barva Press, 2020)
The Power of an Existential Humanist: Gail Goepfert’s Get Up Said The World
In Get Up Said the World, poet Gail Goepfert grapples with the age-old conundrum: how do we live in a world where pain and cruelty abound? How do we make peace with the horrors of humanity and the impersonal nature of nature? As the coronavirus death toll approaches one million worldwide, exploring these topics is both timely and necessary. In light of a world where we fear human contact, succumb to nature as exterminator, witness the ugly scapegoating of human groups, and suffer under leadership by bullying, how, indeed, does one get out of bed every morning?
In an understated way, Goepfert’s narrator leads by example. Through precise and thoughtful observations, she offers up herself as test model. If she can slog through another harsh winter, survive the zeitgeist of our anxious age, and dispel the thoughts of death that figure in much of the book’s first half, perhaps we can, too. These 40-some poems become a case study for the reader, a catalyst to throwing back the covers and leaping forward into our own lives.
As Robert Frost remarked, “The best way out is always through.” In the first half of the book, the poet takes us through the dark side of life. The opening poem, “Speaking Up for Silent Eggs,” reveals that the speaker is on her own, not part of the couples she watches in church. “I want together to be less lonely than alone—.” But is it? Of course, there is no way of knowing. What comes through rather than the certainty of comfort in numbers is the bravery of a solo exploration and the honest, questioning tone of a writer’s voice able to live without answers.
Further delving into the hurts of life, Goepfert provides a string of examples. A poem depicting how social media randomly conflates the shaming to death of children and the latest recipes for Peeps marshmallows (“Note to Self: So Much This and That on Facebook”), gives way to one about the careless poisoning of the earth (“Dust and Ash”), followed by a narrative showing the callous disregard of an old woman’s need for beauty and human connection. In “Tete-a-tete at Trader Joe’s” the narrator aligns herself with a stranger in a supermarket over their shared love of peonies, “…and we stand / in our own vortex of bloom-love.” As they begin to exchange names and numbers, the world intrudes in the shape of the woman’s son, whose concerns center on money and the abrupt corralling of his aged parent.
As the book progresses, the slights become more deadly. Life lists, those personal records of bird species sighted over the course of an individual’s life, contrast with media lists of gun fatalities. In “Life Lists Not Just for the Birds” the poet laments not only that children die senselessly and violently, but also that, unlike precise bird naming, human casualties are not always even distinguished as individuals, “in the reporting there’s not even a list of names.”
Death continues to cast a shadow. A college memory pivots on the attempted suicide of a classmate (“Religion 101”). An on-line teacher recounts a chilling phone call to a failing student whose son was killed in Afghanistan (“Cold Calling”). But to me, the galvanizing poems in this section are the lyric meditations on the act of dying and the act of writing, both somehow connected. These unwindings of the poet’s thoughts tend to marshal her keen sensitivity to words, the beautiful sound of them as well as their associative abilities to paint lush images. “Flight” is a spare poem of about 50 words trailing down the page in a simple column, and yet it does what poetry does best: moves beyond itself into a realm greater than the words themselves. Here is the poem in part.
a tiny sparrow
to quilt its nest
on a breath of wind
Note the prevalence of the soft “s” sounds, the tender image of a bird bringing life, the domain of insubstantial air, the gentle repetition, the rocking rhythm. This is the work of a mature poet whose craft amplifies and deepens whatever her words suggest.
Just as “Flight” explores dying, “Dead Reckoning” is a gorgeous working through of writing as affirmation. From the narrator’s past of “plummeting into water / unwarmed by light” she talks herself onto ground that, although not quite solid, is at least bright and expansive. “I must learn to revere white space— / open to infinite edges, pooling / on a page of warm light.” This meditation counters the fear of the blank page that dominated “What Keats Knew.” In the earlier poem the speaker asks, “How do I wrestle / truth loose.” Here she welcomes writing as home base.
The importance of words cannot escape our notice. On the page facing each poem, Goepfert highlights a word or phrase and its definition. Although these words rarely appear in the related poem, they seem to launch her meditations or buzz in the background. In the second half of the book, the highlighted words mark the progression of a mother’s decline. “Mettle” describes both mother and daughter as the narrator removes “the coarse black threads” of mastectomy stitches (“While Spooning Jelly on Toast”). In “Linens,” a quiet poem honoring the mother’s love of cleanliness, the word “venerate” reveals regard for the patient’s bather. And “knell” signals the end of life in the ravishing poem “Salting Ash,” which springboards from death into a praise-song of life.
Strew some ash of me
with the conch and crab that ride
the steady clout of wave—pain free
I’ll tumble in the foam.
The use of “clout” to describe the blow from a wave, followed by “pain free” marks a turning point in the book. Despite the many heavy-fisted hardships already shown, the speaker will not allow herself or her love of life to be diminished. Paradoxically, death has bequeathed courage, a concept that calls up lines from Louise Glück’s poem “October:” “—death cannot harm me / more than you have harmed me / my beloved life.” Indeed, Goepfert acknowledges her debt to Gluck in the title poem, “Get Up Said the World.”
My feet root in the dark.
I listen for what I know.
Listen for a ping, a quiver
beneath my ribs.
As the poems now tip toward life and renewal, they take on the beauty and mystery of ecstatic writing. We notice a desire to delve deeper into a personal vision. In “Easing In,” the narrator describes her awareness as “clear and clean / as picked bone / like the luminous cells in me.” The—to my mind—dry armor of cicada skin becomes “caramelized / a golden scarab / washed in sun / on a lake-bathed step” (“Second Chance”). Even the flatness of returning from vacation in “Flight Log” gives way to a declaration of agency: “Somewhere below, a single shell / alters the wash of sand and wave.”
As we nourish ourselves on these later poems, “Crouching for Water” slows our pace. In thin lines of two or three beats, Goepfert conveys spiritual wisdom as the narrator humbles herself at a traditional stone basin within a Japanese tea garden. The short lines, together with the “click” of the camera and drip of each quivering drop, embody the Buddhist concept of spiritual cleansing. “A friend led me here once. / To be fed.” And so she feeds her readers.
With the final poem in “Get Up Said the World,” the poetic voice triumphs in a world that has changed in no way other than in how she perceives it. True, winter has loosened, but as she sits on a sunporch in “Drinking It In,” “Hail-pearls stamp hard-edged brick and glass.” Despite the chill, the simple surroundings of morning pear and wintered-over geraniums flood the narrator with deep joy.
Witness! The alchemy of eye to eye, rib to rib, thigh to mine.
Body’s balm. Salty. Touch and shudder.
Shudder and touch.
I drink from the lip of the bottle. Quenched.
The speaker displays a spiritual richness akin to Tantric intimacy. How far her evolution from wondering if life is less lonely with a partner. In “Get Up Said the World,” Goepfert covers the sacred ground of life, human behavior, beauty, death and Zen contentment in a short but full span of ruminative poems. By marshaling words as inspiration, tool and guide, she shows us the power of an existential humanist writer moving past trauma and death into the profound mystery of everyday life. As Rilke says in “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” “You must change your life.” In the hands of this talented poet, we get glimmers of how poetry can help us accomplish this feat.
Patrice Boyer Claeys is the author of two poetry collections: The Machinery of Grace (2020) and Lovely Daughter of the Shattering (2019). Recent work appears in The Inflectionist Review, Zone 3, Glassworks Magazine, Aeolian Harp Anthology 5, and The Night Heron Barks. She has been nominated for both Pushcart and Best of the Net prizes. Find her at patriceboyerclaeys.com
Listen to Gail Goepfert read “Because I can’t stop thinking about Houtouwan”
Gail Goepfert, an associate editor at RHINO Poetry, is a Midwest poet, teacher, and photographer. Her first chapbook, A Mind on Pain, appeared in 2015 and first book, Tapping Roots, from Aldrich Press in 2018. Get Up Said the World was released in May 2020 from Červená Barva Press. Recent publications include One Art, Rogue Agent, The Examined Life Journal, The Night Heron Barks, and The Inflectionist Review.