Gravity Matters


Carolyne Van Der Meer for Canadian Woman Studies
In this cohesive work that is solid in both form and content, Sonja Greckol uses many approaches and techniques that are both convincing and arresting. It is easy to lose oneself in the language and poetic voice in of Gravity Matters and then be jolted by the content of Greckol’s work.
In the first section of this slim volume there are some particularly powerful pieces, which stand apart from the rest. She begins strongly with “The always rising of the night,” which sets the stage for a strong diaspora theme but also uses language that draws the reader into her poetic world: diaspora, despot, malted, sprout, flaments, heartscab, keloid—all of these words have powerful, aggressive sounds that ring loud in the ear of the reader. For this reviewer, there was a nostalgic and very personal connection to the second poem in the collection, “Calliope,” because of the relationship between horses and childhood. However, Greckol’s often-used technique of finishing the poem with a zinger of a last line—in this case, “the horse without/ wings cannot be saved by naming”—gives the poem a power that went well beyond that personal connection.
Her earlier introduction of the diaspora is a good segue into a solid series of poems on genocide and in particular, the Rwandan genocide. This series begins with “A Girl Studies Genocide,” which is a powerful exploration of the killing in Rwanda. The italicized single lines that punctuate the poem give it all the more power. “What She Learned,” the second poem in this series, shows that Greckol has some knowledge of the literature surrounding the politics of the Rwandan crisis: she lists several titles, including Courtemanche’s novel, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, which, even among the non-fiction titles about Rwanda is probably one of the most powerful discussions of the subject; Greckol achieves a similar power here. Nevertheless, there is work for the reader to do in deciphering some of her references and technique—but this does not make the poems inaccessible or esoteric, merely all the more interesting. Her challenges to go beyond the surface of the work make it all the more satisfying and certainly ensure that the work is not given a superficial interpretation. Her term “alphabullet broth” is stark and gets to the heart of the ineffectiveness of all the attempted political action in the Rwandan region. “What She Decided” explores ethnic cleansing from a mother’s point of view, making the concept all the more jolting for the readers who are also mothers. “Inbox Citizen—6 a.m. 13 Messages 05.07” is less accessible as a poem and can even be considered somewhat confusing, but it is completely fascinating to try to decode it—and not in a frustrating way. It suggests how large the world is, how far a message can travel—and ultimately then, how small the world really is.
In the poems that follow, Greckol moves away from the genocide theme somewhat, and while she continues to explore history, there is a stronger emphasis on family history and connections. “Skin of the Universe,” the first poem following the genocide series, does this—in a brief six lines, it manages to capture the link between three generations of women. “Orlando Comes to Our Seder” is a fascinating exploration of a moment in a family history that is enhanced by pre-meal conversation that is interwoven with her own thoughts on family in the final stanza. The notion of family is further explored in “Bits Fall Off,” which, though a very challenging read, expertly and innovatively explores the demise of a mother’s health in old age. In the final poem in this section, “The Mother Line,” she pays tribute to her grandmother’s history and traces out her immigrant journey from the homeland.
Part II is clearly inspired by Cuban-American artist, Ana Mendieta, whose work focused on the female body—and particularly, violence against the female body. Two of the poems make specific reference to Mendieta and explore the process of going back to the earth and of being objectified as woman. Certainly, they are designed to make commentary on Mendieta’s own return to the earth—she fell to her death from a 34th-story, and her husband was tried and acquitted for her murder. The other poems in the section address other aspects of the body and yet employ elements of humour and irony. “Advice on the Arts of Seduction” looks at beauty’s flaws—and humourously addresses woman’s greatest enemy: cellulite. “This Body” is one of the most powerful poems in the sequence, exploring the female experience of orgasm, fertility, miscarriage and pregnancy—the powers of the female form.
The third sequence addresses, in a range of forms, the title of the first poem: “The Mind-Body Problem.” As in the poem itself, Greckol speculates through verse on the seemingly disparate movements of the physical self and emotions. In effect, the body seems often to be on autopilot, just doing what needs to be done, what is socially acceptable—while the mind rages and feels intensely.
“To be looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour,” Greckol explains, in the notes following the collection, refers to a Marcel Duchamp work. It is a fascinating exploration of the progress of industrialization and the “ant work” of society during and following Duchamp’s career. This poem is one of this reviewer’s favourites as it succinctly wonders how art would and could interpret this progress. Greckol is expert at swiftly, with few words, studying a profound concept.
“Cassandra’s Other Other Brother,” takes its title, Greckol explains in the endnotes, from the Greek myth of Hecuba and King Priam and their many children (but I could not help but be humorously reminded of the Newhart Show’s “Hello, this is my brother Darryl and this is my other brother Darryl”—it’s possible that Greckol was playing on this as well). While the poem can be read as a study of that myth, it can also be read as a study of society, and given Greckol’s political sensitivities, it is likely that this was her intention. This poem is also about people, based on their abilities and disabilities, being relegated to certain castes, certain jobs, and certain rungs on the social ladder. Yet, Greckol’s perspective is one of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness.
“Joy Riding” is an extremely powerful poem in its exploration of how things get lost in the telling—and how every story’s hearer infuses it with something personal. Greckol’s last line, “Why’s this story about you?” is a full punch and drives her point home. But the subject matter is already jolting—we all have a story like this, one we heard in our childhoods. If one considers this possibility, the final line offers yet another layer of meaning.
Another poem in the sequence that stands apart is “When Authority Lies. Regarding Stanley Milgram, 1933-1984.” This poem treats social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority experiments in the 1960s and 70s. The premise of Milgram’s research was that subjects will commit acts that are against their moral code if they have been told to do so by an authority figure; they will transfer the responsibility for these acts to the authority figure and in this way, will be able to follow through with them and still absolve themselves. Through his experiments, Milgram discovered that only a few subjects would refuse to commit the act. Greckol suggests that now that Milgram is dead, we are forgetting him, forgetting the power of the authority figure, and thus, horrible acts are being committed and justified. She makes reference to recently politicized issues in Canada. She focuses on Dudley George, the Objibwa protestor shot by police in the Ipperwash Crisis in 1995; Shidone Arone, the teenager who was tortured by the Airborne Regiment in Somalia in 1993; and Corporal Sandra Perron, an infantry captain who in 1992 was tied to a tree for hours as part of a training exercise—an act that was probably meant to break her down in the face of her male colleagues and subordinates. Greckol asks the question, “Who is watching, after Stanley?”—in other words, who will bring this to the public arena, who will ensure that we are aware of how authority works? Clearly, no one, she indicates, in light of these three incidents. What is interesting is that Milgram’s work was highly controversial—Greckol manages to pit this against the alternative: that there is no watchdog.
Part IV, “Emilie Explains Newton to Voltaire” is Greckol’s pièce de resistance, and the foundation on which the entire collection rests. While the other poems are indeed solid, this 15-poem sequence is technically brilliant and its content fascinating. As she explains in her Prologue, Greckol explores the relationship Emilie du Châtelet had with Voltaire, and studies her work as a mathematician, and particularly, her work translating Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which she managed to complete just before her death after giving birth to a child at the age of 42. It is important to note that in this era, taking lovers was commonplace, and both Emilie and her husband, the Marquis, did so. Emilie was lovers with Voltaire for several years, but the child born to her at the end of her life was fathered by a young poet soldier with whom she had become involved.
The poem sequence explores Emilie’s research into the science of fire, her meeting Voltaire and their entwined passion and intellectual respect for one another. Greckol even explores it from Voltaire’s side in No. 5. The sequence moves on to her relationship with the poet soldier in No. 6, in which Emilie discusses her body’s project: her pregnancy at 42. This reference to the body’s project is particularly interesting given Greckol’s earlier focus on the body versus the emotions, and therefore ties in well with the preceding poems. The project, as we see in Nos. 8 and 9, refers not just to the pregnancy, but also to Emilie’s certainty that the pregnancy will kill her and that she must therefore complete her body of work, her project, before she dies: the translation of Newton. The project of childbearing theme continues in No. 10 but Greckol adeptly adds a modern-day reference to Prudence Lemokouno, the 24-year-old woman in Cameroon who died in 2006 because proper obstetric care was not available to her. New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote about her in his column to widespread reaction—and the lack of such care in developing countries was suddenly under the microscope. Greckol’s reference brings a modern-day element to the poem and indicates that in some places, there has been little progress and the woman’s body project is still a risky one.
On a technical level, the poetry is intricate. As of No. 2, all of the poems begin with the final line of the previous poem—or elements of it. There are 14 such poems, which is significant: given that the fifteenth is written in the form of a Spenserian sonnet, it is likely that the 14 preceding poems represent the notion of a sonnet (which have 14 lines), with the fifteenth a culmination that is therefore written in proper sonnet form. The fifteenth poem is Spenserian, with three quatrains and a couplet, but like the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, introduces a problem in the first two quatrains, and with a clear-cut change of tone, resolves that problem in the remaining six lines. The problem for Emilie is the pregnancy at 42, with the resolution of completing her life’s work and returning to earth in death. This sonnet finale is brilliant and secures any assessment that Greckol’s work is not only filled with solid content, but is technically near-flawless.
The final six poems in Part V pale in comparison to the collection’s earlier pieces. There is a strong focus on birds and snakes, solidly rendered and consistent. Particularly strong is No. 2 of the Egg Girl sequence—the final line, “I’m othered” has marked power. “More Self Portraits In The Mother Line” draws the collection together in its consideration of motherhood once again, but this time in the bird world. The title hearkens back to the last poem in the first section, entitled “The Mother Line,” in which the grandmother’s immigrant journey from the motherland is privileged; in this poem, it is a bird’s return from her winter retreat to her home of origin—this creates a feeling of having come (flown) full circle.
Greckol’s layers of meanings are manifold and it is clear that her work is informed by a sensitive worldview. Ultimately, they are for the reader to discover—but their plentifulness makes for rich reading.
Carolyne Van Der Meer is a Montréal writer and editor
who’s poetry and short fiction have been published
in Bibliosofia, Canadian Woman Studies, Carte Blanche,
Helios, and the Hudson Gazette.

Andrew DuBois for University of Toronto Quarterly
Among this year’s debut volumes my favourite was Sonja Ruth Greckol’s Gravity Matters. Even to describe it as a ‘debut’ is somewhat misleading. The term may inadvertently conjure a pampered belle-lettrist, quill in delicate hand, descending a spiralled staircase in a crisp and frilly gown. The poems in Gravity Matters instead radiate maturity, the powerful energy of the lived-in life. First book, second book, third book, last – one could hardly tell which of these was Greckol’s without being told on the back of the book. Two poetic sequences define the volume, one of them more obviously a sequence than the other. The more clear-cut of the two, ‘Emilie Explains Newton to Voltaire,’ treats a fascinating subject, the learned and vivacious Emilie du Châtelet (1706–49), who died days after childbirth, having just completed her translation of and commentary on Newton’s Principia, and whose work on Newton is described by Greckol as the most comprehensive in French. Compelling protagonist aside, the poem is also formally masterful. After a prologue in prose, we enter the series of fifteen poems, beginning, ‘Matter puzzled her – gravity, the universe.’ Some of the fifteen are sonnets, some just long or short enough to suggest that form. The group as a whole is a variation on the sonnet redouble´, or heroic crown, whereby the last line of each poem reappears as the first line of the next. (Greckol allows herself the slight manipulation of certain words.) The fifteenth poem is a sonnet made of the first lines of the preceding fourteen poems taken in consecutive order. The archaism, elegance, and nominal regality of the form seem chronologically and spiritually apposite, given the poem’s eighteenth-century heroine, while its structural difficulty and complex organicism do honour to her mind and her work.

The other group of poems is a sequence only in a sense less contained, scattered as they are throughout. I have never read anything like them. With Sylvia Plath was encountered what before had hardly existed (having hardly before been allowed to), an expressive range of mother poems, not merely imagined but straight from a mother herself. Since then, in the genre there have been numerous elaborations of tone and voice, updates that registered social changes, and expansions of viable subject-positions. Greckol’s contribution is compellingly specific. 

What do you do when your daughter embarks on a career that you cannot help but admire, but which also causes you emotional pain? What do you do when your daughter undertakes the dangers of aid work in faraway, war-torn lands? Underneath the specificity, however, is also the lurking universality of the soul-harming paradox of the successful mother, whose hopes for her child are fulfilled: ‘That your appetites are large, I see / is redundant among my wishes. Your arc / is larger than the scripts I | un | furled.’ 

In other words, how does one handle the pain that one inflicts on oneself by having reared the independent and ethically minded child that one always wanted into the well-adjusted adult that leaves one behind? ‘A Girl Studies Genocide,’ ‘What She Learned,’ ‘What She Decided’ – this is the start of the arc of the sequence. The last ends where many lesser parents would never have gone: Now we have taught ourselves what our daughter learned. I grasp /structural adjustment/coffee markets/foreign currencies/planned genocide/ our complicity: And a daughter sets her radius to Kigali – declares her own Never again

After these lines follow three spare poems – ‘Mother Watch,’ ‘Skin of the Universe,’ ‘Small Disturbances’ – that register Greckol’s unease and her determination to remain even-keeled. In the poem after those, ‘Gravity and Flight,’ we enter by seeing the doorframe on which the daughter’s height has been measured through the years. Strangely, the marks do not uniformly ascend. Mother and daughter ‘chuckle,’ but there is sadness tracked in the ebb and flow of those marks that also mark their relationship. What is so atypical of this parent-poet is how clearly Greckol shows the symbiotic nature of their love. Her daughter can be both teacher and taught. She herself can be made younger than her daughter when her daughter, although still and always her child, becomes an adult: ‘A week before you left, / we bought pillows on Spadina Ave: / you plumped and squeezed and giggling / lay your head down and buoyed your courage and my urge // to be the feathers that could hold you; smoothed my / frayed edges, / and I found my young feathers imped.’ A word worth looking up, that last one, as well as an occasion to add that Greckol’s strength is not just in her fearless approach to meaningful subject matter, or in her idiosyncratic but in-the-pocket rhythms (established not only by impeccable enjambment but also by her use of indentation, of stanza breaks, and of the page as a field). Her strength is also her vocabulary.

Poems such as ‘The Mother Line’ and ‘More Self-Portraits in the Mother Line’ complete the series. The book as a whole is fleshed out by others. Everywhere there are lines that reverberate: ‘Undone is my fecundity’ or ‘Her slanders lay in half-knowing whole truths’ or ‘the bodies of the girls / who left, hand in hand, giddy / in gilt sequins under the silken / fringe of our mothers’ dread.’ But it is not just a matter of lines; whole poems are beautifully built. Take ‘Joy Riding,’ which I cite complete:

Too young, they decided, and lined up
the high school at the yellow buses
and took them to the funeral.

Decapitated, we whispered,
left behind on the soccer field,
when the cable across the plant gate
sheered off the top of her head,
and we imagined her body lying
tight in that coffin, headless.

Joy riding, we heard, drawn up high
on the transmission hump –
we knew where teenage girls rode –
in that red and white Imperial,
page boy streaming,
her mouth a bright streak.

It didn’t happen that way, Olga said,
that poor beat up girl found someone was kind to her for a time,
took her for a ride, he’s dead too,
Why’s this story about you?

So well made is this poem that you could read only the italicized sections on the left side of the page, or read only the end-words running down the right side of the page – as well as the final stanza sitting there, slab-like, as if its foundation – and you would still get the gist. The rest of the structure is further buttressed by those telling verbs (‘decided,’ ‘whispered,’ ‘imagined,’ ‘heard’) and given aesthetic life by its interior details. This is not only a macabre story of early death and wilful misunderstanding, but about how violence and nascent ideas of sexuality swirl together in the minds of the young. There is wide-eyed joy in envisioning the unknown future, where ahead lies a discomforting me´lange of death and pubescence – discomforting for the reader because there is obvious pleasure taken in it by the children, in the way that a terrible surprise in a horror film reverberates into nervous giggles. ‘Hump,’ ‘streaming,’ ‘streak’ – none of these words refer directly either to death in the poem, but they end up imbued  with them both.

University of Toronto Quarterly
Volume 80, Number 2, Spring 2011,
pp. 151-218 (Article)
Published by University of Toronto Press

DOI: 10.1353/utq.2011.0033
Karen Cope for Dalhousie Review

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