Reviewed by Ashley David
In the southeastern United States, in Mexico, and in other places governed less by the ethos of industrialization and the Enlightenment, and more by the complexity and familiarity of human relationship, reality allows the living, the dead, and the imagined to sit at the same supper table. In these contexts, perceived reality ranges a fuller spectrum, and what may be considered surreal in many contexts is not considered surreal in these. Rather, these contexts permit an experience of living that is more broadly real than what is recognized by the analytical west.
Carrie St. George Comer offers up a fine example of the more broadly real in The Unrequited, her first book. When we join her assembled company with this frame in mind, we have the opportunity to experience a transparent conveyance of a reality that is defined in different terms, as in “Crowscrowscrows”: “My parents are turning in the soil, / which disturbs the crows and means it's time for me to hush.” Although metaphorical, these lines are grounded in a literal sense of parental presence.
This broadly defined reality enables the author--and allows the reader--to explore a depth of human feeling, relationship, and history that is neither linear nor unencumbered. Comer does not hush after this moment in “Crowscrowscrows,” and in the lines that follow, she flirts with divination, with revealing more, before ending the poem with an empowered avoidance: “We stay away from there. / We drive all night when we have to.” The dilemma of revelation is just one of the unanswerable questions that populate Comer's psychic, cultural, and literal landscapes in The Unrequited.
It is not the landscapes she writes about, however, but the landscape she writes from that forms the backbones of Comer's poems. In a strange twist of metonymic relationship, these are the poems of a southerner gone out in the world. Thus muscadines and clam plates may populate the same pages as silencitas and blue morphos.
Blowing open the southerner and the south in this way is not a tidy undertaking nor process, and Comer is forthright about it. Her title promises us the unanswered and the unrecompensed, and the epigraph by Yehuda Amichai--“Who is shaking us? Who?”--positions the volume as something of an existential dialogue about this process. In “A Note from Olive Lane,” Comer writes:
I stood at the center
of my enormous house, wondering why I stay.
I stay because muscadines grow on the trellis
out back and because of my two dogs.
We feast at daybreak. We brew our own shine.
No one comes to visit.
The poem's last line leads the matter-of-fact answer Comer gives in the preceding lines back to the possibility, or probability, of a question: “Why?” These turns are characteristic of Comer's dialogue with herself, with the reader, and with the assembled company at her table. As poetic choices, they are part of what gives the book its depth.
The poems of The Unrequited also have depth because they walk a line between documentation and transformation. “Don't Let Me Forget You” is a clear example; it begins:
Memory: the enemy. Its nude and worthless body
enters the evenings as if on wings, smiling and waving a white feather,
first quiet, then tanked,
but still a rating of G: for mild peril, for some scary images,
for emotional brutality.
Comer's line and stanza breaks in this poem give us room to breathe and digest the fullness and significance of the lines, and they also pull us along the transformation implied in the poem. She ends with: “By morning it's gone, its print left in the sand / just inches from the sharky waters // where a lemon-yellow boy glides past in a sailboat.” This concreteness of scene, image, and metaphor helps ground a poem of difficult and painful subject matter.
The view Comer offers of endangered personal, cultural, and literal landscapes is intimate, and it invites the reader to envision that which cannot be understood. These poems request an uncomfortable and questioning acceptance of complexity and transformation, as in “Three Days Before”:
How do I say the word without the trembling chin?
How do I make a broom of my voice?
What did we look like, lying there in the glowing tangle of limbs?
Listen, the sound of grief leaving the body.
See the girl talk to the young boy.
See her lead him to the river, taking his hand in her bird-bone hand.
See his face when they return, as if he'd seen,
Water moving backward.
Comer's questions are not just at her core; they are often at the core of what it is to be human, conscious, and more broadly real. To inhabit this realm is not easy or simple, and The Unrequited is full of signposts to guide the reader. As with “Storm,” they often provide access to an enlightened resignation that is beautiful: “I should / go home now. The trees are telling me it is night.”