A Review of Valyntina Grenier’s FEVER DREAM / TAKE HEART

Review by Laurie Saurborn

FEVER DREAM / TAKE HEART, Cathexis Northwest Press, January 2020

Beyond Limerence: Valyntina Grenier’s FEVER DREAM / TAKE HEART

Grenier’s power is akin to that of a waterfall rising back to meet itself before tumbling down again in a steady act of recalibration.

Amid these times of perpetual social and political upheaval, our home planet offers opportunity to witness quiet miracles: morning sunlight on tree bark; pale snow thinning over gray-black forest soil at twilight; a hawk hunting prey in leaves and thorns. Valyntina Grenier’s double chapbook, FEVER DREAM / TAKE HEART [Cathexis Northwest Press, 2020], leads us with confidence and wonder through landscapes of this natural world we share, and also through her experiences as a queer artist and writer living in America today. Her poems weave concerns of human, relational connections—love, loss, and identity—with the distinctly non-human realm, a territory other than human yet deeply affected by human choice. Attention can flit and flirt but lightness of touch serves as decoy for a serious call to respectfully inhabit the world in all its worlds. Grenier gently draws her readers in directions unpredictable, whether through sonic linkage, a call to imagination, or direct signaling via objects and emotion. Consider the poem, “Leaf N’ Bone”:

       A wood hawk
       standing on remnants of a life
       empty nest fragments

       Alone and the fodder is streaming
       this was a logos
       and under in
       the distant rarefaction
       of a frog bellow
       fog bellow

       Compression of a stag floating
       downed from
       a storm’s rush
       of current into wave
       went up some tree life

How has this poem made movement? In leaps and gaps, by eschewing visible punctuation for that created by pause and breath, and in the gathering of animals, some framed in narrative, some held aloft in a sound-rich hum. Moments of motion—streaming, floating, rush—are suspended (standing, compression, downed) as if in resin, and what should be moving—the wood hawk, the stag—rendered into stillness. Kinesis is also generated through the shifts between past (“was a logos”) and present (“is streaming”), time hitching along the linear while also collected in the immediate quantum—the all—of the poem.

In The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang describes the space between “reality and unreality” as liminal. The unseen exists on faith, she writes: “One article of faith is This suffering will be of use to you someday.” Grenier’s lines harness a porous dynamism where an exchange occurs between the perceived and obscured; between the valued and the overlooked. Some poems are more directly reflective of the speaker’s personal history, and while the poet’s attention in both chapbooks is laser-focused the scale is never small. In “Creation Myth,” the contemporary and the mythic, the celestial and the earth-bound, all coalesce as the speaker climbs from the back seat of a hot car to take the wheel in an act of rescue:

      As I touch the bleeding swords of the sun
      I say as I climb
      through the scorching front seats
      I’ll drive

      to the center of the sun
      to save our lives

      I leap stone steps
      built into the curve of a tower wall
      to find my self dreaming this life

      I run screaming to my mother’s side
      away from a future
      adolescent me

      revolving slowly in a cave
      w/ rays of light streaming
      from my mouth nose and eyes

It is difficult to look away when faced with that much light. Power and vulnerability course through the stanzas as the speaker moves towards a former version of herself, re-seen, reinvented, reconsidered. The internal and external switch, the sun now within the speaker’s body. A closely curated inclusion, not indecision, drives her lines. The progression of this poem, and others in the collections, demonstrates a particular quality of focus that allows the tactile heaviness its presence but does not let it dominate. Environments are constantly turning but destabilization is not the desire. Instead, the reader is asked to flip, wiggle, evolve and metamorphose along with the lines. Inherently, the poems are resourceful, finding a path of continuation whether through sound, sense, or description. Each step holds the quality of surprise, as if embodying Hilda Morley’s poem, “By Choice,” in which she writes: Words in my mouth / are astonished. This flicker and balance is contained in the interplay between lyric and narrative energies. What is seen and what is sensed delicately collide, resulting in an internal monologue intended for sharing as much as confession, as in “Nice Work If”:

     a storm and a train and a child walking
     through the brush
     Mush mush mush go the twigs
     and leaves into the mud
     damp earth O
     it is you I’m thinking of
     How are those friends of yours

     the girl who grew up above a liquor store
     and her two best friends young boys
     the trailer park next store

     How are you
     How’s your new home
     How’s your loved one
     I heard something about some toxic mold
     I hope that’s all dried up now and you’re
     Snuggling in

A conversational (oh, that lovely leap from “toxic mold” to “snuggling in”!) fragmentation unifies a relationship between how the line directs the reading-eye and what the image-eye is moved to construct as the line unfolds. A storm: above and around. A train: cutting through, or paused, or sounding at a distance. The child walks, scuffing leaves and perhaps delighting in the effect. We readers are grounded in this scene, or the sense of it, until damp earth O/it is you I’m thinking of. Here the speaker’s mind cuts away, moves on, and carries with her the storm, train, child, and the sound of walking over a forest floor. We are left with these echoes of her experience and presence while we move into the world of the following stanza, one that includes the liquor store, best friends, and a trailer park. Grenier’s power is akin to that of a waterfall rising back to meet itself before tumbling down again in a steady act of recalibration.

A writer and visual artist, Grenier does not shy from addressing the current political landscape in all its peaks and pits. So seamlessly does she move from immediacy to distance that the world she builds are equal in parts, whatever their parts. Geology, biology, oceanic depths and politically personal transgressions build a world of action and intent, directive and impulse, cut with care. Concurrently, an intimate domesticity infuses the poems. In “Coming Current,” points of contact are so distilled and exact, carefully considered and arranged, as to both frame and house a conspiratorial camaraderie, a protective instinct as apparent as the lack of protection sometimes experienced in the world:

    Yes two women on or in Not against beside

    Our bodies

    Under one jacket in the rain reflexive as the wet streets

    This is about emergence Jacket this fortuitous arrival

    I’ve planned to reach out to press your palm

As Claude Cahun wrote in Disavowals: “Love. The act itself is the creation of the flesh—flash of heat, a star so brief there’s no time to formulate a wish . . .” Cahun’s words could easily describe that phase of coupling sometimes referred to as limerence, an aspect of attraction where common sense and boundaries tend to perish in the drive for connection. In Grenier’s hands, however, the action following impulse is savored, slowed, a solitary flame turned over in the palm as the speaker conjures image and converts her readers to her perspective. In times such as ours, to act with thoughtful tenderness, to invite love’s sustained entrance and cultivate its presence within oneself and to choose to manifest it in one’s actions towards another, seems radical and lifesaving.

A fever dream requires a body. Taking heart—either as a call to bravery or an invitation to love—requires the ability to give and to receive. The speaker—the poems—are not transparent or obvious, instead possessive of a unique combination of the cryptic and genuine. Revelation floats on an ever-churning sea of syntactical elisions and illusions. Like an incoming wave and an outgoing tide, the poems encroach and recede by moments, by words. On first reading of both chapbooks, I had an impression of the chorus, the Greek vessel of comment and warning. With repeated readings I came to hear the speaker’s voice—full of velocity and hunger—as that which rises up as the chorus falls away. Or what Cassandra says when she stops warning others and forges ahead with her plans.

Laurie Saurborn is the author of two poetry collections, Industry of Brief Distraction and Carnavoria, and a chapbook, Patriot. An NEA Creative Writing Fellowship recipient, her writing and photography have appeared in publications such as Rkvry Quarterly, storySouth, The Cincinnati Review, The Southern Review, The Rumpus, and Tupelo Quarterly. Currently, she is pursuing a graduate degree in psychiatric mental health nursing at Ohio State University.

Valyntina Grenier is a poet and visual artist. Her tête-bêche chapbook FEVER DREAM / TAKE HEART was published by Cathexis Northwest Press, January 2020. Her work can be found in Impossible Beast: Queer Erotic Poems, High Shelf Press, Gaze, Global Poemic, Impermanent Earth, Wild Roof JournalSunspot Lit and Lana Turner.  Find her at valyntinagrenier.com or on Instagram @valyntinagrenier