Kevin Miller Reviews Waiting for Grace & Other Poems, by Christopher Locke
Christopher Locke opens and closes his book, Waiting for Grace and Other Poems, with his daughter Grace. He hones this tight, single section collection to a fine edge. Most of the poems are one page in free verse. The language is clear and accessible; its images deftly support the tension that runs the length of the book. The humor and heart make of the reader an ally, on edge, unable to rest.
Grace runs a line like razor wire throughout the 39 poems. It cuts clean, burns fast, and its mark blossoms with the slow show blood makes. Blood tied, the danger of failing, the flailing is ever present. At the end of the first poem “To My Daughter Grace, Nine Years Old,” the persona flails:
I would lose you, someday gone
to the world of men and promises,
dreams opening like doorways
to light, and could picture myself
already trailing from you, unable
to take your hand: a phantom limb
reaching from one body to another
between the unreachable air.
The persona swings wildly in the unreachable air to keep his daughter close. Trailing the child, losing the child, the strain love and responsibility bring–all keep a self- imposed pressure from the start. He spends the child’s ninth year “reaching from one body to another / between unreachable air.”
Locke builds this collection with ease and precision that heightens the palpable tension. The hard truths are never overstated, the images open and stay, like the poem “Scars”:
a picnic spread atop a green field where
we no longer feel safe: no one expecting
the dog to snap its sour maw into her cheek
and neck, the owner still holding its collar
so she could hug the animal properly and
show that all she had to give was love.
Before we are anywhere near losing the Grace of the opening poem to the traditional passages of daughters, this disturbed picnic has us wide-eyed and re-reading to see if we see what we think we saw. Cut clean and checking for blood, and more, Locke introduces other scars “that remain / hidden, like desire in a good man.”
By the third poem, a pastoral beauty mixes with foreboding: “we went to a great field charred / pink with azalea and small fountains of jimson weed flung wild before us.” The edge of charred tempers the field even as “a spurt of yellow as / two bobolinks carved the sky with animal // heat and voices like a translation of water.” The language carries the beauty of the natural world in effortless fluid lines, though the undercurrent of what might go wrong is never far off.
Locke’s collection mirrors the craftsmanship of the individual poems. The carefully chosen run from Grace to Grace shows a connection the process of waiting takes. The subtle thread, wire or blood, works seamlessly. The lines blur between the conscious and subconscious, the dream, the nightmare, and the alarm of the waking world. The dedication for the Dreamers is a perfect lead to these poems, which leave us wide-eyed and fully awake and hoping for an eventual reward for resilience, the payoff for waiting for grace.
The strength of love and the complications it engenders is the marrow in the arc of these poems. Father, husband, son: the persona knows the darkness and manages to work toward the light to find “like / a nest, with a solitary heart streaked / red, newly opened, defiantly alive.” In “Radiant” the persona leans toward the simpler images, and homemade videos at the Haring exhibit. He stays with the heart so like the nest he holds in “Opened”:
as I hold a swallow’s nest up to
the light, a crumbled heart of mud and hay,
flecks of shell the coda for small wings
beating, a sound both terrible and free.
The mixed end of so many of these poems speaks to the continuing issues, the “moving toward / the brighter corners of a world you / still have yet to name and embrace.” These poems do name and they embrace. They convey the difficulty of wrapping arms around light. Even after “The Return” opens with the affirming line, “My daughter is singing again,” the next poem “The Coming Storm” ends with “a wall / between her and my / incapable hands.” The persona ever fallible, hedges, careful to take care with the chance dreams might replace nightmares. The continued tentative nature of someone coming out the other side is fraught with the desire to praise and the fear praise too soon might jinx it all. The daughter in these poems is all grace; she shows with verve and humor an unsung courage.
In “Creation Myth,” the persona speaks of his father. He says, “His voice / surprised me, so unmythical and plain. / The phone hummed between us, / and my father wet his lips as if preparing / to say something bigger than us both.” He speaks a truth about the father who loses his cock-sure attitude after divorce and re-marriage. It is difficult not to see this father trying to say “something bigger than us both” in a similar light to the father of Grace later in the collection, unmythical and plain. This son become father who says, “I stand and face my street. // I am tired of loss and its many jeweled / teeth; I am tired of the way I shine.” In the midst of the grays of the final poem, the young father keeps company with the clouds, slouches in his black coat. Locke uses the dark to set up the brilliant image of Grace:
ten-years-old and sunk deep in a harem
of gossip as she navigates fourth grade; deciding
at lunch which queen is ripe for the plucking. And
if it isn’t hysteria wrought by the Jonas Brothers,
then it’s the complaint her arms are too fat…
He follows with his truth:
But what she doesn’t know is that every day she saves my life—drilling the
science quiz together at night,
or just by asking that I pass the ketchup at dinner
is what keeps me here, awkward yet alive…
Christopher Locke’s Waiting for Grace and Other Poems leaves its mark. While these poems ably stand alone, their careful alignment allows them to speak to each other in an even bigger way. They are tender and tough. They show the terror/joy combination love makes, and the grace required to leave some things behind.
Header photo by Andrew C. Gottlieb.