Andrew C. Gottlieb reviews The Beautiful Unseen: A Memoir by Kyle Boelte and Hover: Poems by Erin Malone
Two recently released books, both debuts, ask the reader to consider the loss of a brother, and in very different ways, while attending to the navigation of identity amid what remains. Kyle Boelte’s fluid and tender first book, The Beautiful Unseen: A Memoir (Soft Skull Press, 2015), is subtitled Variations on Fog and Forgetting, and is not a chronological history but a collage of memories and artifacts examining Boelte’s recollections around his brother’s suicide at age 16. At the same time, a sense of place takes center stage as the author accompanies us through the weather of the Bay Area—where he now resides—as well as his study of and visits with the well-known fog of the region, our main metaphor in a book that feels impactful in its illustration of the way loss can create a vast chasm of decaying memories, of denial, of confusion, of detachment. Erin Malone’s book, Hover (Tebot Bach, 2015), addresses loss and identity differently with a crisp series of poems both sparse and vivid. Malone’s own detective work involves the struggle to discover again her brother, lost at age 11 and to whom the book is dedicated (along with her husband and son), while simultaneously trying to raise her young son—fearfully, fearlessly—while resisting the confines of a domestic lifestyle.
Boelte’s memoir is a comforting, gentle book—ironically—one a reader will hold close, feeling the openness of our author as he lets us in not sentimentally, because detachment is one of the leading features of the collage, but factually, narratively, accumulatively as he reveals to us the story of his healing, his attempts to find his brother while regaining his own identity. I read it in one sitting, and the series of chapters—featuring letters, lyrics, emails, newspaper accounts, facsimiles of notices of all sorts, and even video transcription—are both touching and painful. Boelte’s brother Kris hung himself in the family’s basement at age 16 and in the aftermath of being caught dealing LSD at school. “There is no field guide to these matters,” writes Boelte. He’s trying to answer the question Why? and he asks artfully. “Kris loved questions. Now we are left with a stream of them.”
Boelte’s armed in adulthood with a box full of artifacts his parents kept, keepsakes and documents that tell the story of his brother through which we wander. But we also spend time on the S.S. City of Rio de Janeiro in 1901. With plant ecologists studying fog and redwood trees in a Marin stand of the giants, trees that rely on fog for about a fifth of their water supply. In the Atacama desert where fog is sustenance. “I’ve been thinking about fog for some time now,” he tells us early in the book. We time travel from the past to the future, when Boelte is lying in bed next to his wife Julia. “I see Kris though my eyes are closed. The room is hot and I cannot sleep. I just lie there. I do not see Kris as a child, smiling, telling stories, as I’d like to see him. Instead, I see Kris, out in the living room, hanging.”
Boelte has relied on a number of small and large metaphors—fog, childhood adventures, the hibernation of snails, redwoods, the breeding cycle of the marbled murrelet—to help tell his story amid the detachment our narrator exhibits, and they work brilliantly, neither exaggerated nor overworked. At times, though, the sense of detachment from our narrator seems too much, because he’s shared so much, otherwise. What the reader may miss, even as we hold close this well-written book, is more of Kyle Boelte, our narrator. We get a sense of Kris, and the struggles of a doomed teenage life, but there are only a few places where Kyle bursts through: time spent with his parents, the newness of his relationship with Julia, his girlfriend, now wife. Perhaps this ode and homage to his brother will allow Boelte to shine more light on himself in future books. He writes in a graceful style that will make any reader grateful for the time spent with this, and perhaps future, writing.
The grace in Malone’s Hover comes from a poet who knows how to leave words out, even as she explores domestic worlds that have a tendency to offer easy vocabulary. This is a poetry of a woman’s self, walking alongside herself, exploring multiple layers of existential fear and capability. In her poem “This & Thus Far” we get a good sense of the spare link between narrative and emotion amid the wife and mother’s struggle:
I think I’m all right again,
I said, after two glasses
of red & dinner on its way.
My husband raised his glass.
I pressed my eyes in place.
We left Rome burning
Paris buried in the snow.
Our narrator is both with her husband, enjoying a meal, a vacation perhaps, but in the grips of a struggle while her son grows, sleeping near them in a bed, three months old, challenging the author’s sense of self and memory. There are multiple dialogues happening in these poems and their interactions are what carry the reader through the book’s navigation. Narrator to husband, to son, to place, to brother. The conjoining of dialogues can be found, too, in poems like “And None of Mine Own,” a poem that on its surface tells of the author’s move from East Coast to West, a journey that is both exploration and helpless chasing:
When I went, I went west
until there was no more
West is a boy with a bucket of
of beach on his arm…
I followed him like a trail
but oh my west is merciless, a boy
who leaves as I left with light on his back,
an arrow of grief in his heel.
The reader may pause for a moment to reread, to consider the bold and gorgeous sadness of these lines. There is a depth and texture reminiscent of some of Louise Glück’s work, of the compression of Charles Simic’s shorter poems. Many poets come to mind when considering the tensions of domestic life, but this is not the agony and billboard of Plath’s or Sexton’s struggles, but a more nuanced, intelligent interweaving of both love and pain. We sense Malone’s paired ambivalence and need as she examines the same in her son. In “Cuttings,” she writes:
I think of rejoinders
to be picked up
How I carry the branch of hi
he leans away saying
Hold me better.
It’s the way children stiff-arm their parents while begging, “Help me,” that Malone nails, using the touching soft and natural metaphor of a grafted plant, while she loves her son with the fear of a sister who mourns the loss her brother. Her dialogues with her brother dominate the second section of the book, with question and answer format in alternating lines, but her sense of grief is also best seen in the simplest of poems, “Topography”:
The little mound of childhood
at the top of the map.
My brother died.
I dialed circles in the dirt
around it. Satellite,
my red sneakers,
my one long vowel, amplified.
There are three sections to the book, each titled Symbols to Guide Your Viewing, and the symbols are there, drawn or typed under the section title, symbols like “concentric circles” and “straight or meandering lines” that inform the poems with their additional sense of definition via sign. It’s a semiotics of loss, and while the first poems may challenge the reader with their sparseness, there’s a quick acceleration of subject and emotion that reveals the warp and weft of the weave of a life coming off the loom. Then the sparest of poems here make the most sense, rewarding the reader with insight to the vision of this poet, a vision that, after all, reflects back to our own struggles with grief, with loss. The individual here is perhaps best epitomized with the poem, “Sonnet Destroyed by Crows,” here quoted in full:
I was doubling
an onion against the cutting board,
My knife on the wood a wife, snap-snapping—
Something in me never
We are left hanging in the all-too-familiar limbo of resistance to chores and a life that perhaps may be so different from anything imagined, the irony of needing to complete such seemingly senseless tasks while grief stands in the corner of the room. Hover is a book whose author will teach the reader again the ability of the poem to bring us to this delicate place with such artful success.