To Everything There Is by Donna Vorreyer
Sundress Publications, 2020
84 pages, $16
The first poem in Donna Vorreyer’s To Everything There Is — “In the Encyclopedia of Human Gestures” — begins with the speaker cleaning up a distasteful mess: “Kneeling again at the altar of my dog’s shit.” It’s such an ordinary action: familiar, mundane, unpleasant, necessary. As the title suggests, the poem explores what it means to inhabit a human body, its intricate and holy machinations:
… what better evidence
of the divine than the workings of the body, all
its wastes and its contortions, the joint’s ball
and socket rolling with the bend, the foot’s tension
arching to balance on the toes, the orchestration
of the hands that comb the grass to scoop the mess,
the same hands that will later survey this aging flesh,
the same hands that will run soft across the lush
landscape of your body …
Such a smart move here, to begin with scooping pet poop and ending with making love. It’s how our days go, how our lives proceed. Shit and sex and so much else, the domestic and the delirious. As the opening piece in the collection, it performs the titular promise: this book will be expansive, inclusive, reaching for the all in our lives.
A truism about poetry — or possibly just a true fact — is that language is entirely incapable of doing what we ask of it, and what we ask of it, over and over, is to keep us alive. To stave off death. This is the tension a poem holds, and the best ones vibrate from it. “I struggle to name the ache that godzillas its way / through the bright cities of my bones,” the speaker of one poem offers. It’s a sentence that does exactly what it is lamenting its inability to do: gives language to grief.
Grief is ever present in this collection from Sundress Publications, Vorreyer’s speakers mourn lost parents, dead animals, past lovers, past selves. Wisely, the book resists easy answers or all-too-simple moments of healing. The next-to-last poem ends with these words: “If you must be resigned to anything, be resigned to this—so much of anything is completely out of your hands.” Talk about faint consolation.
But this is not to suggest that To Everything There Is is a bleak book. Not at all. It merely avoids the facile. This, too, is the project of poetry, right? To render the human condition without reducing it to the mushiness of abstraction. Vorreyer demonstrates a careful eye for image; she is a skilled observer and recorder of experience. In one poem, a teacher leads a group of students through a museum:
We arrive at the dinosaur remains,
the reconstructed bones majestic, scaffolded
with bolt and steel. We learn to tell carnivore
from herbivore by the teeth,
which bones lingered in pits of tar, how
the creatures thrived, but could not abide
Spurred on by its narrative, the poem moves through the museum and the speaker’s internal and external reactions with precision and care, and the reader lingers in the language, taking pleasure in those moments of doubling in which observed details yield metaphorical resonance.
Formally, this book is wide-ranging. It’s Vorreyer’s third full-length collection (plus she’s also published seven chapbooks), and she’s most certainly a poet still willing to try new things, to push her range. There are poems in couplets, poems in tercets, longer single-stanza poems, poems that use indentation to cascade down the page, shorter poems that are sonnets or sonnet-adjacent. There are multiple centos and a Golden Shovel. All this variance in form gives the book a kind of instability, in a good way; a reader can never get too comfortable. A poem titled “Ebb Tide” opens with this:
The first blood-rush of breath, and it’s
morning again. The insistent and terrible
light throws patterns on the bed. Love,
it’s time to wake, leave this comfort and
re-enter the world.
It’s a pretty good metaphor for the reading experience this book delivers. There are patterns, but they are not predictable. There is love, but it will soon be time to leave. There is darkness, but there is also morning. The light returns, but sometimes it’s terrible. These poems get a lot of mileage from such juxtaposition of opposites; many of them begin with a speaker reckoning with contradiction or with the reversal of expected associations. One poem is called “When you see us not talking at the restaurant, do not make assumptions about us”; another begins thus: “Others praise the soft eye / of the antelope, but the miracle / of your body is more worthy.” Vorreyer challenges both herself and her readers to look beneath the surface of her images, to think beyond our usual expectations.
One point this book makes again and again is that while the body may hold impossible quantities of grief, it is also and always a source of pleasure. In a poem titled “The Opposite of Amnesia” (is that a definition of poetry, or perhaps only an aspiration?), the speaker tries to work her way through grief. First, she considers escape, via sailing, but is stymied by the weather. Then she moves on to the act of making, only to find frustration again: “I deftly string a thousand shells before / they tumble and leave me weeping on the pier. / I have been nothing but brine and iron for weeks.” In the end, she does find the solace she seeks in the arms of a lover: “We search for omens on the beach, sigh / and dive together into a surf of tangled sheets.” Mortality is inevitable, these poems teach us, and grief is inevitable, but it is the warmth of human connection that sustains us. And perhaps that, in the end, is the project of these poems: to find — and celebrate — the moments of connection and beauty and pleasure amid so much loss.
Amorak Huey’s fourth book of poems is Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy (Sundress, 2021). Co-author with W. Todd Kaneko of the textbook Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury, 2018) and the chapbook Slash / Slash (Diode, 2021), Huey teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.
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