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How to Set Down Grief: Nora Gould’s Selah

by Athena Kildegaard

Nora Gould‘s prize-winning first book, I See My Love More Clearly from a Distance, sets us on the high prairie with a farm family who, like most others, faces the red-tape of government bureaucracies, the vagaries of weather, the ebb and flow of seeding and harvesting, and the most fundamental of all cycles, birth and death. Gould farms in east central Alberta, and, like other farmer/rancher poets such as Linda Hasselstrom and Wendell Berry, Gould gives us an intimate and non-sentimental look at her life.

Gould farms on the prairie, and she treats the prairie as a character: Prairie is an actor in the poems. “Prairie turns to Orion, toluene blue / in his blood, his fluids / in her, her blood / loose in her body. . . Prairie knows her own beauty, silver willow, golden- / rod, her slopes thick with prickly pear, hawthorn, / meadow sweet, meadow rue. . . .”

Gould is a close observer of the work of ranching and farming. In a prose poem late in the book Gould writes about cutting hay: “On acute corners I swing in tight counter-clockwise circles, don’t gear down except for low spots heavy with alfalfa, sweet clover or reed canary.” In a note to this poem she describes the cutting method of pull-type haybines, something most readers will not know but will value having learned. Gould doesn’t shy away from the particulars of farm life just because her reader might not be familiar with the terms.

She writes about people, her children, neighbors, and her husband, Charl, who suffers from asthma. Here is the first stanza of “A spicule of bone in my throat”:

Charl used to grip the edge of the bathroom sink,
rock his body, a standing push-up, work for breath.
Asthma. I’d hoist whichever child had to pee,
then step by when he leaned in. I never knew
if he knew we were there. When he was well
enough to flood a rink, play shinny with the kids,
I stood watching before I put my skates on.

Gould is a witness here to the unspoken, to what can be observed if we pay attention. She watches her man in health and in sickness. At the end of a later poem, “Grief submerged with her brilliant feet, tucked up in flight,” she writes a sort of prayer: “Our afterwards, our days, passing—gleaned as they are for joy, they / are like the Shoveler’s bill, tending to orange along the cutting edges.” Along with the business of working and paying attention come life’s joys, the days passing and providing joy.

In the penultimate poem of her first collection, Gould addresses Charl: “We are older. Let me try again / to wash you, turn your body, in the water.” Gould’s second and recent collection, Selah, is, in effect, a washing, a turning, of Charl’s body. Selah continues the job of witnessing ranch life on the prairie, but it is also, more importantly, a blessing for a husband suffering from frontotemporal dementia.

About the relationship of Selah to her first book, Gould says: “Selah expresses what I saw when I finally achieved the distance to I see my love more clearly. My first book was an exploration of what was amiss, not that I fully realized that as I wrote. I had no inkling that pathology was occurring in Charl’s brain, but when I read the poems now, I can see the shadows.”

Gould was trained as a veterinarian and, as a good scientist, sometimes prefers the Latin. She uses it to powerful effect, as in these beginning lines from the fourth poem in the new book:

Too unsettled
to know that place he loved
to buy coffee, a sweet, was just a block north

on our way home, he didn’t talk
about our separate meetings, his new diagnosis—
frontotemporal dementia.

These few lines reveal many of Gould’s concerns in this remarkable book: the contrast between the familiar and the new; the particular details of an engaged life in a particular place; the difficulty of talking about difficult things; the unsettling that results from illness; the shock of the disease. And, too, this book answers the problem of “how to set down grief,” as Gould says later in the book.

One way Gould sets down the grief is surprisingly simple: she quotes conversations with Charl. Here is an early poem:

Not a foreign language.

His lost words, delays to decipher, not speaking,
and the odd surprise—Don’t attach conditions.
Tell me what to do and I will do it. Don’t
make me figure things out.

I had said, If you are warm enough, please
turn down the heat.
We were in the car, looking ahead.

In this poem we hear his response before we hear her comment, and so we experience the oddness of his words even more powerfully; we are made to decipher the almost unintelligible.

In another poem we eavesdrop on a brief conversation between Gould and her daughter:

Early evening over east, grouse lekking
on their ancestral ground stamped their feet
in courtship. A muffled booming, their necks

purple; tail up, head down. Leaving Charl
and Bronwen to their work, I was checking
cows, not bird watching, but stopped the truck

a ways away to use binoculars. Darkness
fell. Bronwen had said, You shouldn’t
say things that make him mad. I could only

construe this as you shouldn’t speak to him.

The pain of failed communication is balanced by the lyric attention to the courting birds. In that gulf between sadness and beauty lies the grief that Gould is setting down.

Many poets have faced the challenges of writing about family; others have waited until death relieves them of possible awkwardness. In both her books, Gould writes brave poems that feature her children, her husband, of course, and others. “I gave all my immediate family the opportunity to read both manuscripts before they were submitted,” said Gould. “Although a few technical errors were corrected, there were no complaints. That said, some of Selah is difficult for them to listen to when they attend readings.” Her comment makes clear how vulnerable poetry can make us feel, particularly when the poetry is shared in public, aloud.

The challenge, then, is to write honestly and openly, without using poetry to air complaints or exact revenge. In the poem above, Gould uses Bronwen’s comment as a fulcrum, a balance point, between failed communication and grief, since grief is a response to a kind of silence.

“Frankness and decorum are goals of my writing,” she continues. “I try to set aside concerns about what people will think. Even so, I did not feel moved to write about the chidings that my family has received from extended family and neighbours who don’t (can’t?) recognize or believe that Charl has dementia. I suppose that if they were to read Selah, they might be offended.”

The penultimate poem in the book gives back to Bronwen some agency. It begins, “Bronwen read all this and brought up the unsolved / dilemma of her father driving on the farm, / but not for the telling here.” Gould’s decorum is right on the surface. Near the end of this poem Gould writes, “His years of gradual change from himself, to this, became / unmuddied—I hadn’t always been at fault.” Here is a frank acknowledgment of the change that occurs in someone with dementia, a change that is no one’s fault.

“Mother read to my siblings,” Gould said in response to a question about how she came to writing poetry, “so I heard poetry throughout my gestation and early years. Soon enough, I was reading it myself. In my teens, I worked on a dairy farm, mostly milking, haying and picking rock. Evenings, I read and re-read, then during that repetitive, rhythmic work, the poems reconstructed themselves (with varying degrees of accuracy). Don’t let that horse eat that violin . . . As the mist leaves no scar . . .”

How did she begin writing her own poems? “I wrote poetry as a young girl but I don’t recall beginning. This background scribbling continued through university, waned during the busy child rearing years, then re-surfaced and insisted on itself.” Gould’s experience echoes that of many bloomer writers. Gould, through her sister, admits that writing poetry came unbidden. “My sister says it’s not your fault that you write poetry—it’s genetic, her statement matter-of-fact, not positive or negative.”

There is an insistent quality to Selah, as if the poems build and push, demanding to be let out into the world. In this poem Gould uses a small incident to convey dementia’s passage.

Alone, I could focus on what I saw—he had shoved
the taller potato pail in, forced the shelf up, set the shorter
one on the other side. Charl, who could measure distance
and size with his eye, his grasp of physics uncanny. In the quiet

of just us in the kitchen I asked him
about those pails, the shelf. He said,
I was in a hurry. I found no words. Perhaps

my eyebrows. He knew I knew, I could see
he knew and he knew that too and we didn’t speak of it
all winter, Charl and I, on the farm.

The zoom outward from the cellar to the whole farm is uncanny; so, too, are the layers of knowing and the failure to talk about any of it. And, as with so many of the poems in this collection, a simple gesture—the movement of eyebrows—conveys a history of knowing. Even the gesture of the farm dog Hazel contains in it a history:

The funniest part—Hazel knew before I did—isn’t funny at all.
She would follow Charl to the porch, then while he put his boots on,
come back to the kitchen, stare at me, some days refuse
to go with him. I assumed it was her arthritis.

The poems here enact dementia’s passage.

Tracing the course of a disease through poems could become maudlin or sentimental. Gould avoids this by writing also about daily life and the passage of life and death on her farm. We notice birds and foxes, we follow the disintegration of a doe’s body. Gould is a close observer, of humans and their gestures, but also of the business of labor and the changes in the natural world.

Ranch life affects Gould’s writing in significant ways. “I’ve written many early drafts of poems while outdoors. (I sketched answers to these questions on a well-folded paper jammed into my pocket along with the regular debris.) This might start with a phrase that repeats itself with small shifts in language and association. Eventually I jot a note on whatever is at hand but that might not be for hours or days. Seems that the ranch stretches my kitchen across the yard to the garden and to the chicken house where the hens lay their eggs in nest boxes and roost when the sun goes down. I think ranch work opens my writing in a similar way.”

The poems in Selah stretch from bedroom to kitchen to barn to prairie in just this same way. As they move through Gould’s world she considers her relationship with a man whose mind is changing him irrevocably.

Gould says, “Some work (with the radio turned off)–swathing; hauling bales; walking a fence line, staple pail and hammer in hand—allows lines to develop even as it requires a certain concentration.”

Indeed, Selah is a book built out of intense concentration, but, as with walking a fence line, full of movement. It is through this labor that Gould is able to “set down grief.”

Bloom Post End

Athena Kildegaard is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Ventriloquy (2016, Tinderbox Editions). Garrison Keillor has read her poems on “The Writer’s Almanac,” her poems have been set to music by Libby Larsen and others, and they’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Kildegaard teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

photo credit: Pictoscribe Barn on Highway 97 on Way to E-burg via photopin (license)

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