Chelsea Rathburn. A Raft of Grief. Autumn House Press 2013
A Raft of Grief is a collection that moves it’s reader physically and emotionally from places that are foreign and uncomfortable to places that are familiar and remorseful, finally finding a place to settle that is contented, a balance between the unknowing and that which feels like it was always a part of you. Chelsea’s Rathburn’s second collection is the story of the end of a marriage, the questioning of the decision to partner and to part, and of falling in love again. The reader is able to journey through the three sections, Departures, In Transit, and Arrivals, and, with the speaker, come to understand that some journeys are meant to end, some are ongoing, and none can be escaped.
In each section Rathburn dissects the heaviness of letting go. In the title poem, “A Raft of Grief,” the collection begins “low and long and loaded” in a poem about homonyms, about two words that look and sound exactly the same but have different meanings. This is where we find our speaker, whose hope it is for a raft “loaded/ with all we’d brought or built” that “did not need a rower,” in order to push it out into a space where the speaker will not have to follow. In this first section Rathburn collects those items that she hopes to load onto a boat, the lies and fire ants and arguments and marsh, wrought with guilt and anger. In “The Lies We Told,” the speaker and her husband find evidence of rodents in their home, “nesting close,” and find “the evidence of who we are,/ people who seek shadows, who love the darkness.” It is this darkness that the author emphasizes as she goes on to present “Bats in the Attic,” an extended metaphor forthe relationship between the speaker and her husband. She writes, “By day, God how we hated them hanging there,” then confesses
and as we watched their synchronized ascent
it seemed some lovely, hidden language meant
for us. They dipped and went,
and as we tracked them, bat by vanishing bat,
we wished that we were changeable like that.
In all of these poems, Rathburn begins from a foundation that is peaceful but conveys the tension, the possibility of something sinister or violent beneath the surface. The reader feels what living with this spouse was like for a speaker who hangs onto a life that has already ended, where there are never explosions but always the risk of them.
In Transit contains a series of eclogues and conversations that takeplace throughout European cities between the now divorced couple, a way for the speaker to reflect on what seemed real and at times lovely but in retrospect was their “botched trip,” crisscrossing the memories that each speaker has that mostly don’t match up. By taking us to foreign countries, Rathburn shows us the discomfort of simultaneously being trapped and completely free, as she uses wandering as a metaphor for the aftermath of a break up. By using both voices here, we are able to get a better sense of the relationship, the reasons for its dissolution, the desperation to hold on, and the inability to let go, despite the awareness that through this wandering they are only collecting more for their raft, for their grief. This section ends with “Q & A,” posing the question, “Was there anything about us you liked,” and answering “No, I loved the doughnuts, and the bats.”
Arrivals begins with a poem dedicated to “my newly ex-husband” entitled, “The Crucible,” which echoes and summarizes those first sections: “Everywhere I look, some metaphor/ for disaster or driving love/away.” The reader is then quickly placed in the speaker’s new relationship, where she and her new love are touring “an exhibit/ on cartoons and their counterparts,” a way for the speaker to show the reader that it is hard for her to believe in what is bright and new.
In a dusty case, a plush Tweety
looms above a real stuffed
canary, yellow belly-up
as if tossed in Granny’s trash.
This metaphor reveals so much of the complexity of the shift, the impending dénouement. The items of her Departures, the darkness that the speaker and her ex-husband are drawn to, are what is real—the dead canary, preserved behind glass but also thrown away contrasted with this new cartoon-like relationship.
Following this poem, in “Small Deaths,” we again encounter mortality, but this time is different from such encounters with the aggressive animals of the first section; this time there is new life. These arrivals are not stationary, there are poems set in both familiar and foreign spaces. But there is great comfort in such border crossings. The partnership between the speaker and her new husband are at times paradisiacal, but not without the recognition that every hibiscus picked will die. It is not with sadness in this section that the speaker encounters what is dead, but with the ability to see that these fatalities lead to new places—figurative and literal:
On our way back, we stopped to kiss, and one
of us—but which?—saw the white shape watching.
It was a skull, a few feet from the body
of the deer. Love let us look in silence.
Up close: the ribcage like the chapel made
from a child’s upturned hands, open and calling.
Bones the color of an Easter egg steeped in tea.
This image of rebirth gives new meaning to the infestations and decay that it echoes from Departures, a cycle of life necessary for new beginnings. There is an energy in this final section that feels like waking from grief. The reader now, too, stands in his small victory over the corpse of something both beloved and entrapping.
Early poems in the collection are so formally controlled that the reader feels the speaker's ache for some control over her predicament. Over the course the arc of this collection that form loosens, the grief lessens, and the speaker is able to stand on the bank “watching it go.” In essence, the speaker relinquishes her raft in this collection by getting out from beneath its crushing pressure and in so doing finds absolution.