Review by Melanie McGehee
Margaret Ray’s Good Grief, the Ground won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize in 2022 from BOA Editions, Ltd. and was published in their New Poets of America series in 2023. It is an impressive first compilation with fifty-two poems, many individually published previously in dozens of literary journals, arranged in a kind of narrative arc of life.
Ray begins with “The End of August,” a poem describing how she, like the beetles and cicadas, lives within the cycles of nature, full of desire inside a finite life, and how she, unlike those insects, routinely hides parts of herself.
This time of year I let the juice
run down my chin when I eat a peach, let it
merge with the river of sweat down
my chest, speak freely in the days before
I have to become, once more, at work,
Ms. Ray, who only rarely curses, covers
her shoulders, fine, keeps a part of me apart
while I play this role as if a roomful
of teenagers doesn’t know the same thing I know
The reader then travels along with Ray back to her own teenage years and experiences make-out sessions in movie theaters, a group rendezvous to a neighborhood pool, and a high school basketball game. Ray pushes back into childhood moments when she was confused by a peeping Tom. She moves through time and shows us her own particular loves and losses. She reveals herself as fully as she reveals the roles that society has each of us play.
Ray is never sentimental, never trite. She maintains a matter-of-fact tone throughout, though she certainly brings us close to a myriad of strong emotions. There is playfulness within the sadness.
Why use poetry if not to play? She employs different styles. A couple are prose poems. A couple are lists. One uses bracketed white space to convey the supposed medium, a transmission from deep space.
Her strength is metaphor and her connections are subtle, never overwritten. Consider the dead alligator found on a Florida street from “Substance and Accident.”
This is the same world
it’s always been, where lumbering monsters
emerge after years of silence
to take up space and give us pause.
We gaze at their bodies and wander away
to buy groceries, which is fine.
Sometimes she herself is the subject of comparison. In “Divorced Invertebrate,” Ray is a lobster. In “Eve Signs the Papers,” marriage is long-form improv. Another poem explains how “Grief is a Sudden Room.” But my favorite, perhaps, is the way that Margaret Ray describes happiness and how she treats it like a “half tamed deer” in “The Clearing.”
I felt anger at the ways of world, particularly its ways towards females, when I read portions of Good Grief, the Ground, but it was a calm anger, the kind that sidles up to a friend and says, “Yes, I know. I have been there, too. I agree and it should not be so, but it is.”
While you may not have grown up in central Florida or remember the Clinton impeachment hearings or be an English teacher, you will likely still feel a kinship with Margaret Ray’s words. Individual poems can certainly be enjoyed as stand-alones, but I encourage you to read these first in the order that they are arranged. The poems seem to build upon each other. Some exact phrasings are repeated. I had a few questions that pulled at me as I read along, and Ray satisfied them in the end. Wait for the notes, but don’t skip over them.
Good Grief, the Ground by Margaret Ray
BOA Editions Ltd., 2023, $17 [paper] ISBN Number 9781950774845
Melanie McGehee has been a regular contributor for a local mom’s blog. Her love story was published in A Cup of Comfort. Her most recent poetry was published in SC’s 2022 fall lines. She is a graduate student in Wilke’s University’s Creative Writing program and is working on a memoir.