This line, found in the later half of Douglas Goetsch’s new chapbook Your Whole Life, easily sums up the theme and intent of this collection of poems. The poem in which the line occurs, Vacuuming, goes through the details of a marriage from the point of view of the wife:
These few lines have the speaker transition from a painful memory of an abortion kept secret into justifying it in light of the aftermath, showcasing Goetsch's superb ability to turn phrases and draw power from the rhetoric of conversation.
The poem comes close to being merely a diatribe, albeit a hilarious one. The turn at the end, however, when the speaker turns the focus on the reader by saying, "...and now / I can hardly wait, because it's your turn to talk." the poem takes on a new dimension, showing an awareness of the power of provocation. This move takes material that is shocking and gives it the muscle of argument.
This turning to the reader shows several things: it is a speaker refusing to indulge in self-pity; it is also another purposeful use of provocation. The poem, by condensing in three lines a horrific scene in the form of an argument, impresses upon the reader the full meaning of the opening line. While it is easy to want someone dead, it is a harder thing to see what that want really means.
This candid talk of expectation, of indulging vicariously in danger, of celebrating it while only experiencing the risk of the bystander, the witness, all of it builds up against the feeling that follows, the way that, "...like glass in the surf, / the city buried us back into our anonymous selves." The character of cities, of crowds, of feeling small beside skyscrapers, parallels that of danger and anonymity, both of which command a sort of response, a declaration of self that is acted out in these poems. In the handling of volatile emotions in the face of the transient nature of life, Goetsch's poems do what good poems do and remind us of the soul, its place and its power.
Subject matter that in other, less insightful hands would stray into sheer sentimentality is led here into an evocation of awe, the awe of what childhood holds as seen after the fact. Whereas the poems that began the collection railed against a world seen as plundered and overwhelming, the poems in the middle focus on childhood and show the flipside: if to an adult mind the world is a chaotic mess one must manage to get through, this same world was once simply big, like the first time you see an elephant big. If it is unfathomable for the children in the classroom of To a Teacher to see, "a 3 in front of a row of zeros," and then be asked, "to believe / the impossible: there was only / one of each of us in the world," it is due to inexperience; this same feeling is felt by the adult speaker earlier in these poems, only what is unfathomable is how someone could not believe in their own singularity. The heart of this collection shows itself in poems that establish that singularity.
Here again is the masterful turn of phrase, the accumulated weight of what has occurred in the poem let to sink into the meaningful word choice of, "powerful or helpless," the image of an indecisive child in a game lifting the poem’s intensity to a pitch that bursts on the last line's, "to end this," the implied meaning underlining the simultaneous power and helplessness of the teacher.
The power of this poem lies in its self-consciousness; earlier, the speaker tells us:
The wry nature of this confession has the feel of self-deprecation, a sense of humor not afraid to take shots at itself. By the end, there has been an accumulation of emotion, of sympathy brought on by self-mockery, that lends power and poignancy to the phrase, crumpled ones. In making his money count, Bill makes the kid count.
Slowly the details are dropped that form an argument of class difference, an argument that is unique in its humanity:
What is unique here is the way the speaker, in the midst of sizing up his neighbor in a subtly combative tone (note the inclusion of "plush leather seat"), takes the time to include such a humanizing detail as passing gas. This speaker seems determined to recall things as clearly and honestly as he can, both what separates and joins the neighbor and him. What is impressive about these lines is how they show that the speaker and the neighbor are separated not only by means but also by the speaker’s sense of shame and the neighbor's implied lack of it. After such subtle and insightful storytelling, one is surprised, then, to see the sweeping finality of the poem's conclusion:
There is something off in the bite of this ending. Perhaps it is the way that, while the poem does go into detail about the neighboring family's affluence, we are given little about the speaker's own circumstances--which is fine, there is much power in the unspoken, yet one wonders if it is enough for the judgment in those last two lines. One can see here an indulgence that rarely pops up in the rest of the poems of the collection, Goetsch's gift for the well-handled phrase used for what could be seen as unwarranted condemnation.
There are several things in these last lines that conflict with what the poem as a whole has been doing up to this point: the speaker has left the world of school in the last few stanzas, bringing in a parallel between the adult world of politics and the student's world. Whereas the rest of the poem dealt with the faults and quirks of teachers and students in a humanizing light, the end here attempts to provide a parallel in the lies of government officials. What is off about the parallel is what the poem itself embodies, how the speaker knows the teachers personally and can pick their faults out front row while they only know the figures of Reagan and Clinton in the public, impersonal way every American knows them. This bald move to elevate the subject of the poem from personal recollection towards a more generalized, relatable level for the reader stunts a poem whose power resides in the personal. The problem is not that the speaker is unrelatable -- who has not, in the midst of shaping one's self-identity, questioned the credibility of authority figures? -- but that the speaker does not follow through with the recollection. Bringing in politics leaves the speaker taking pot shots at a past they seemed not to have learned from and then tossing off an ending where the phrase "War on Terror" is used in the poem the same way it is used in the media--for shock value.
Hint at the guest's circumstances but do not overtly tell the story; rather what is allowed to resonate is the feeling of generosity that the speaker is impressed with. Posed as a question towards a "you", the poem seems taut with emotion, each detail pulling tighter on the reader to keep track. Also, there is a subtle subversion in the use of question as a form--Goetsch is able to turn a hypothetical situation into an ode in praise of kindness in general and Jane in particular:
This poem takes a contemporary example of estrangement and turns it out, shows how people can overcome it. The same way Jane was once "glamorous", a word that implies intimidation and distance, and is now "simply kind", so the guest is welcomed in as such; though he is "wondered about all day", he is never treated as a stranger.
This claim gets the speaker to wonder:
Thus, the first stanza sets up the gender-specific expectations: the girl as submissive sex object and the speaker as the entitled male. What happens in the second stanza exemplifies the kind of unpeeling of layers and exposing of human frailty that makes Goetsch's poems moving:
This unraveling of superficial expectations played out in the context of two people who end up vulnerable before each other and yet unable to understand each other is made all the more poignant in the light of the other poems of this collection. Throughout, what has stood out more than anything is the theme of difference and how nothing really prepares us to deal with our difference--whether it be race, class, or gender--except for experience, which teaches the things one can carry with them. So one is not surprised at the end of Delia to find that the speaker has no answer for his original questions, but is left with more questions:
It is this type of questioning, this unflinching yearning, that moves the poems in this collection from storytelling into revelation. A moment in the title poem, Your Whole Life, speaks to the power and relevance of this type of inquiry:
The insight from which Goetsch speaks from is earned through an awareness of one's own accumulated dirt. For this reason, when the speaker of The Sorceress of 97 th Street says:
One can not help but believe him.
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