Book Review: RIVER HOUSE by Sally Keith

 photo 88ca6d79-48be-4bb8-845e-83bb586abd43_zpssx4nev4g.jpg River House
Poems by Sally Keith
Milkweed Editions, 2015

reviewed by Alison Taverna

In her fourth poetry collection, River House, Sally Keith straddles this world—oriented, logical, with the world of grief—timeless, aimless, consuming. All sixty-three poems are elegies to the speaker’s mother, even though she confesses “I used to like to teach a course on elegy, / But I don’t anymore. / The form no longer interests me.” Each poem fits on a page, clearly numbered as a title, followed with a period. I read this mathematical, clean ordering, first, as a mask. Create order in the chaos, the disillusionment. Too, though, I see this counting as a process, a heavy-footed, day-by-day movement through suffering. As if living doesn’t have a name anymore. Each moment indistinguishable from what follows, and what will follow, for “There isn’t really an order that would be correct.”

Reading, we find ourselves pulled by the river. At times Keith’s stanzas flow in a linear narrative. Other times we chop through lines, spin around quotes and references from authors and artwork. These jumps are intentional as Keith explains,

Forgive me for all these quotations.
I take notes when I read. There can be instances of real clarity.
I always hope I might remember them.

The mother rents herself a house by the harbor, where the land sits on the same level as the water, the house on stilts. What is usually separate, the land and the shore, now exist together. This landscape, these poems, all grief conflates into survival. The speaker finds comfort in this survival, this movement—

…I reread a favorite poem

In which a speaker in mourning sits by a river thinking.
That the river does nothing but move makes sense to me.
In the margin, “grief” was the word I once had written.

The voice in River House strikes me as overtly controlled. The collection opens with thirteen sentences in sixteen lines. The final stanza in the opening poem hints towards this straightforwardness: “Because our mother is gone, we do not need the house. / We tell ourselves this. Soon we will clean out inside.” Directness avoids sentimentality for the poem, and is a method of coping for the speaker.

Still, this direct voice does not limit any emotions, for I’m mourning with the speaker, each poem somehow more shattering than the one previous. In what I consider the most striking moment of the collection, the speaker discusses promises made to the mother during the aging process,

…We would keep

Her nails trimmed, her hair combed. We would keep
The bright lipstick from bleeding up, away from her lips.

As the collection continues, Keith begins to step out of the poem. This happens in 55. The poem discusses the mother’s wooden drawer that only opens via a special code. At the beginning of the fifth stanza a volta occurs. The speaker breaks the wall and acknowledges the poem and audience, a meta-move. More, the speaker doesn’t just step out of the poem, but gives up on the poem, for “By now, you must already have figured the rest, / How the poem will end with the code…” I find this one of the most honest moves in the collection, suggesting that yes, sometimes writing doesn’t ease the constancy of loss. But Keith writes through these moments, forces forward, towards another poem, towards a life where everything can exist as solely itself—

The message in the waves is the waves.
Don’t work harder. Don’t allow me to weep,
Talking about the river. The river exists. The house exists.

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