Review by Sherre Vernon
I don’t know if it’s because Jessica L. Walsh shares my grandmother’s maiden name, or if it was her opening line: “My first found kin were killers” (1), but she had me from the moment I picked up her Book of Gods & Grudges. There’s something to be said for a collection that opens all your wounds, (with the hatchet on its cover), and does so with lyricism and compassion.
The Book of Gods & Grudges is written in four parts, with each section break marking a turn in the speaker’s lived experience. Walsh’s speaker, who is bold throughout—and self-aware—brings us into her history, her initial formation of self, her evolution and grief in middle age, and ultimately into an identity that incorporates all of this.
When we first meet this speaker, she is already “heavy with enemies…/…the holy fury / entrusted to [her]by [her]mother, / who guards it for [her]gone grandmother,” and she is “loyal with anger” (1). She tells us that her “people were hard to love” (3), both for their crimes and their edges, and by association, prepares us to find her equally difficult. In these first pages of the book, Walsh reveals to us her speaker’s origin of knives and drugs, of secrets and abuse. We will be journeying with a woman, from a line of women, who can count men’s’ kindness in single digits, who was brought up in a tradition where the Father is to be of some comfort even as a grandfather is a danger.
It’s against this backdrop that her poems seem to be asking: In such circumstances, who do you hold accountable for abuse: the abuser or the one who condones it? How do you bring that conversation to the table, other than by talking about more, and varied suffering? She brings this existential lament to an inflection point by asking, “How many heroics are suicides, God? / How long do I wait here?” (15) and later answering herself: “Remember grace No” (17).
As the Book of Gods & Grudges moves into its second part, we see that the speaker is living her trauma “and can’t muster fear when it’s useful….waste[s]it on garter snakes and mice, the dark garage….keep[s]no medicine… [having]never filled the prescription.” (21) She chases danger like she has a death wish. She wants us to see that there is a holiness in the earthy, dying things. In the poem, “Beasts and Creeping Things,” which is a recasting of the Biblical flood, Walsh writes of the animals that stayed behind, “and they so loved the world they stayed with it…//…they sighed that this was good, and this was good, / and all manner of things was good enough” (23). She has spun the words of St. John, the beloved, and St. Julian, the mystic, into a new cosmology. This mystical voice and spiritual contemplation appears repeatedly in Walsh’s second section” “I say daily to my beloveds / I love you every day always” (26) and “What I cannot collect I herein speak to God, / who has never yet failed when it comes to reaping” (36).
This evolving woman recognizes that if she is to have a holiness, it will be a different one than her husband has, as he is a man who will not write the name of God (31). Like the Beasts who claimed their own story in their demise, Walsh’s speaker announces: “I made myself wait / I made myself a shapeshifter / I made a girl” (37). In making herself these things, and specifically a girl, she is the author of her own soul and of another: she has brought a daughter into this dangerous lineage.
And on this crux of parenthood the Book of Gods & Grudges turns again. Upon her pregnancy, the speaker was told by her mother, “you don’t get to find yourself once you have kids / and a band tightened around [her]lungs” (52). But this is a woman who knows how to live with pain and constriction, so find herself anyway. She finds her body as all of us who are lucky enough to inhabit aging bodies do, recognizing that “[t]here was a time / when [she]lived whole days” (41) and “everything [she]wanted, [she]got and threw out” (45). She sees the arrogance of her youth and is tries to make space for the person she is now by eating “the meals [she]skipped” and praying for “just this one day of unsuffering” (47), that is, for “communion, lord. Let’s call this surrender. / The end of trying” (48). Yet there remains one commandment: “Do you really think you can fall apart? / People like us—we don’t” (52).
So what can a woman do, when prohibited to fall apart? Rebuild. The speaker takes her grudges and reshapes her cosmology: “Piece by piece / I will be for myself” (55), holding in paradox what she has come to believe: “We are irreplaceable / to the divine // We are replaced” (68). In this final section of the collection, Walsh’s speaker has found a compassion for the “griefs crowding around us / not hungry ghosts but anxious ones / who cannot wait to touch us again” (69), and a clarity. She knows that just living is a righteous riot unto itself. Ultimately the Book of Gods & Grudges asks and answers a single question: “How did I get here? I say, By my fucking teeth” (73).
Book of Gods & Grudges by Jessica L. Walsh
Glass Lyre Press, 1011, $16, paper
Sherre Vernon (she/her/hers) is the award-winning author of Green Ink Wings (Elixir Press) and The Name is Perilous (Power of Poetry). Her debut full-length poetry collection, Flame Nebula, Bright Nova was released in 2022. Sherre has been published in journals such as Tahoma Literary Review and The Chestnut Review, nominated for Best of the Net, and anthologized in several collections including Fat & Queer and Best Small Fictions. Sherre teaches poetry at the Downtown Writers Center for the YMCA of Central New York and composition at Merced College. Read more of her work at http://www.sherrevernon.com