Burning Pages: On Elisa Gonzalez’s “Grand Tour”
By William FleschSeptember 30, 2023
Grand Tour by Elisa Gonzalez
This is an allusion to John Stuart Mill’s famous opposition—in his 1833 essay “What Is Poetry?”—of poetry to rhetorical eloquence: “[E]loquence is heard; poetry is overheard. […] Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude, and embodying itself in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind.” Gonzalez quotes the psychoanalyst and poet Nuar Alsadir’s 2017 collection Fourth Person Singular on how “[l]yric address, to whomever it’s purportedly directed […] occurs ‘between separate parts of mind and different states of self.’” In lyric poetry, the present self is always a self that differs from the self it addresses; the self to whom Mill’s confessing self confesses is always a past self viewed from at least a beat later, or perhaps 10 or 20 or 30 years later. Following Alsadir (in part) and going beyond Mill, Gonzalez brings in yet a third self, the self that overhears the dialogue within the self. What makes some of her poetry so unbearably moving is our sense of what her experience of overhearing that dialogue must be like when the dialogue is about sometimes terrible loss.
You can see this in a poem like “The Aorist,” which is about the tense or aspect in Turkish that describes a fact without placing it chronologically. In Turkish (as my friend Onur Toker has tutored me), this tense corresponds more or less with the English habitual present: “I read books” would be an example (as would the phrase “my textbook directs” in the passage I am about to quote). In this poem, Gonzalez is learning Turkish to be able to speak with her lover in Cyprus, a woman whose English is very shaky and therefore vivid and strikingly spontaneous. (Cyprus is part of the geographic “grand tour” of settings for the events the poems in this volume describe or recall.) It’s the Proustian habitualness of the aorist that ends up distancing experience from spontaneity:
Use this tense,
my textbook directs,
only when an action is
neither past nor present nor future.
I think, What freedom,
until I learn that only habit comes untied
from time. When we spend ourselves every morning
in the same bed. When we practice.
To kiss, to go down, to come.
To stroke. To lift. To stray. To laugh.
To sleep, and of course to take, to give.
Gonzalez doesn’t know how to tell her lover that “[t]he urge to run comes / from time to time”—a habitual urge provoked by the irritation of the everyday:
Your morning murmur: I’ll put the coffee on.
Why tell me, when you always do?
When messenger wind alarms the shutters.
When jasmine whirls through the gap.
When I rise. When I dress.
When I shut. When I goodbye.
What she overhears, I think, is her own imperfect Turkish in the farewell that the last lines describe—or an overlay of Turkish and English, a dialogue now overheard in memory, made vivid by distance and strangeness, as the habit dies hard. (Onur tells me that “‘when I goodbye’ would be a good literal translation of the Turkish ‘vedalaştığımda’—all one word meaning ‘when I goodbye,’ but ‘goodbye’ in a more final sense.”)
If you don’t know Turkish, you can use Google Translate to work out the meanings of some other basic phrases Gonzalez quotes in the poem “Note on a Divided Island: Cyprus, 2018”—for example, in this line: “It rains vakit vakit. It rains tekrar, tekrar, daima. It rains bu sabah. / Başka bir şey yoktur.” In English: “It rains from time to time. It rains again, again, always. It rains this morning. There is nothing else.” There is a lot of rain in Gonzalez’s Cyprus, much more (she notes in several poems here) than anyone there predicts or tells her about or expects, including the taxi driver she talks with at the beginning of this poem. Every day she goes north and crosses the frontier dividing the city of Nicosia into what the occupying Turks call the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (an entity not recognized by any country in the world except Turkey); I take it that this is where her lover lives—“in the life that develops” in Cyprus, where she is “horribly in love.” (It was easy for non-Cypriots to spend the day in the Northern Republic so long as they returned south in the evening: I can attest that the border crossing, an area pockmarked by bullet holes and a souvenir store open only to the United Nations Blue Helmets who patrol it, is, or was, a very spooky experience.)
Cyprus is one of the places where Gonzalez finds herself, not a stranger but not a native either. (She lived there with her husband while he waited for a US visa, and she broke up with him there after she fell in love with someone else.) She has lived in Warsaw, where she had a fellowship (in the essay on Monroe, she tells us that she brought Monroe’s poems with her to Poland), and a couple of poems are set there. Cyprus is the scene of one of the most moving poems in this elegiac book, the opening one, “Notes Toward an Elegy,” an elegy perhaps for a lover, maybe the addressee of “The Aorist.” When it appeared in The New Yorker, she described the poem on Facebook as “an elegy for a dead friend, or perhaps an anti-elegy, if elegies make peace with death.” She makes a similar point in the last poem of the book, “Present Wonders”: “[T]here’s no elegy for the ongoing” when the ongoing is pure sorrow, since “elegy travels from lament to solace, to return us from grief to life, to strip us from the dead.” In other words, this is not a poem that is willing to accept her friend’s death, not a poem about returning from grief to life. I was not sure, before reading her Facebook post, that the woman the poem is about had died, and I still read the poem (as I did when I first read it in The New Yorker) as an elegy for love as well. The poem ends with these breathtaking lines:
My perversity is silence, a shudder stopped
in the throat. When all the time I hear her voice:
I am glad my soul met your soul.
—Examples of what, I do not know. It’s just that
for a time I took Love out walking
with me everywhere and sometimes I thought, Child, whose is this child?
when it played in the square. A sunshine creature, terrifying,
yet still I looked at it like I’ve never looked at a stranger
who promises water to the waterless for nothing.
And now I lie awake pretending
everyone in the world lies still the way the living are still:
not entirely, never entirely.
We overhear her hearing her friend’s voice, and then her own, in an astonishing memory of an apostrophe to Love, to Eros, the child playing in the square. It is the “Child” to whom she addresses the question “whose is this child?” You might be put in mind of Shelley: “O Love! who bewailest / The frailty of all things here, / Why choose you the frailest / For your cradle, your home, and your bier?” Here, Love is the result of their love, a stranger who does promise water to the waterless but is nevertheless so intimate—it’s a child, it’s love—that she doesn’t look at it as she would at even some other stranger promising water to the waterless. “I looked at it like I’ve never looked at a stranger”—the casual grammar here, in a writer as precise as Gonzalez usually is, signifies an ambiguity: she looks at it in a way she’s never looked at a stranger, or she looks at it as though she’s never looked at a stranger. But the ambiguity telescopes into a single meaning: the uniqueness of the way she looked at Love at that moment, whatever her past loves, her past relationships to strangers. That ambiguity in the word like is one that she mentions in the second poem in the book, when, the speaker says,
[a] friend and I discuss a line by Zbigniew Herbert
“where a distant fire is burning / like a page of the Iliad.”
It’s nearly an ontological question, my friend says, the instability
Is the page burning or is the fire burning the way a page in the Iliad might describe a fire burning—the funeral pyre of Pátroklos, or the ships of the Achaeans? Or are they discussing a line by Herbert where a distant fire is burning, as distant as the Iliad? (That Herbert means the ambiguity might be bolstered by its possible allusion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s famous, recurring line in The Master and Margarita: “Manuscripts don’t burn.”)
Here, the speaker lies awake pretending that the dead friend is alive, and overhears herself pretending that, and in overhearing herself pretending that, she perceives that she is not lying entirely still, that perception being the very restlessness it perceives. To return to the insight from Gonzalez with which this review begins, the insight about the poet’s self-discrepancy, this passage exemplifies something that I have felt frequently when reading Gonzalez’s poetry (and essays and fiction): unlike most poems, in hers the last lines are often not the most privileged. She frequently concludes with what feels like a kind of coda: “And now […]” I think this coda has the effect of framing (the way envois used to frame the verses of the troubadours) what has come before, what the present-tense poet has to vedalaştığımda, has to “goodbye.”
The present tense, or the aorist, does allow for a brief freedom from time in a poem set in another location of the “grand tour,” Puerto Rico. (Gonzalez’s father, about whom she is particularly bitter in many of these poems, is Puerto Rican and, since she is “a queer half–Puerto Rican writer who was raised in the Midwest,” is an important part of her own sense of identity.) In this poem, “Puente de Piedra,” Gonzalez writes that “to survive is to wake up early and for a period no longer than twenty to sixty seconds not remember that you are dead. // To survive is to pray this interstice repeats every morning for the rest of my otherwise unendurable life.” What makes the author’s life most unendurable is the shooting death of her youngest brother, Stephen (10 years younger than her), in Columbus, Ohio, on August 26, 2021, just weeks after the publication of “Notes Toward an Elegy” in The New Yorker. Grand Tour is dedicated to him, and in a note at the end of the book, she says, “Not a word in this book can be severed from its dedication.”
The poem most explicitly about Stephen’s death is the powerful and heartbreaking poem that I called an explicit elegy above but that Gonzalez described on Twitter as one that “feels less like elegy than a rage against it.” “After My Brother’s Death, I Reflect on the Iliad” is the second poem in the book (after “Notes Toward an Elegy”), the one that quotes from Zbigniew Herbert. In the poem, the speaker remembers her brother constantly, remembers both him (for example, as a child of 11 or 12) and his killing, sometimes apostrophizing him, or almost: “You are dead at twenty-two.” In her essay on Marilyn Monroe, she says of apostrophe (in a different context) that “the called upon cannot […] call back.” Apostrophe is for her a poetic gesture, like Orpheus’s turning back to Eurydice, in which she senses only his loss, as she describes it in an essay about mourning her brother, “Minor Resurrections: On Failing to Raise the Dead.” In “After My Brother’s Death, I Reflect on the Iliad,” the speaker is haunted by the scene where Priam makes his way to Achilles’ tent to beg for the return of the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles has killed. In Book 24, Priam supplicates Achilles and then underscores his own grief, and she cannot get the last line of his speech out of her mind: “As I rinse dishes, fumble for keys, buy kale and radishes, / in my ear Priam repeats, I have kissed the hand of the man who killed my son.” (Although there are no quotation marks here, she is quoting Stanley Lombardo’s translation, as she mentions in her notes.) It’s this line from Homer that she overhears, the line that inhabits the part of the self that is always just behind her—like her brother, like his death, like Eurydice, like her experience of her own experience. Priam’s devastating loss is an echo or a refrain of her own:
“Let Achilles cut me down, / as soon as I have taken my son into my arms
and have satisfied my desire for grief”—this, my mind’s new refrain
in the pharmacy queue, in the train’s rattling frame.
What do we want from the experience of loss? The greatest of elegies understand that we want that experience always with us. We don’t want to overcome it. What does it mean to satisfy a desire for grief? Is it to overcome grief or to intensify it? The desire is for grief, but for a grief that won’t replace what it grieves for. So, Gonzalez apostrophizes her brother once more, at the end of the poem:
[…] Mischief companion. Brother. Listen to me
plead for your life though even in the dream I know you’re already dead.
How do I ensure my desire for grief is never satisfied? Was Priam’s ever?
I tell my friend, I want the page itself to burn.
The speaker addresses her brother: Listen to me, to what I have to say to you. But that turns out not to be quite right. The enjambment (over a stanza break) resolves the ambiguity: Listen to me plead for your life, in a dream in which she also knows that he’s already dead. Once more she’s overhearing herself, her self’s own dialogue with herself, since there can be no more dialogue between the older sister and the younger brother. And then she returns to Priam’s plea to Achilles but wants to ensure the endlessness of her grief.
Never satisfied: Gonzalez uses the word never in these poems with almost the same resonance as King Lear’s famous lament: “Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never.” She looks at the child “like [she’s] never looked at a stranger”; she lies still “the way the living are still: not entirely, never entirely.” Or to return to “Present Wonders,” the book’s final poem, she doesn’t want to return from grief to life: “Not yet. Not yet.”
The Iliad may describe the burning of ships and of bodies, but it is essentially an oral poem, not a manuscript, so it has no pages to burn. Her pages can, and they do.
William Flesch teaches English at Brandeis. He is the author of, among other books, The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry: 19th Century (2009), and of many articles on poetic form.
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