Poetry, Sometimes as a Prayer, as a Recognition of Persistence – The Latest Poetry Collection from American Poet Jennifer Grotz



American poet, university prof and translator, Jennifer Grotz


Now there are mini-moons, I read,
primordial crumbs. Or rather
there always were but now our instruments
are sensitive enough to register.

It probably means I’m dead. Or dying.
How I spend all day staring into a screen,
or typing, or reloading. Not a mirror, not a window,
a screen I hold in my hand, endlessly reach for,

sleep next to. Photogenic instead of
poetgenic: I like to think
the poem’s resistance to be about you
is poetry’s critique of you

and of how I cling to you
as though you were the world.

Jennifer Grotz from Still Falling, Graywolf Press, 2023

This little poem in Jennifer Grotz’s latest collection, Still Falling, stands apart from many of the poems in the collection that are full of images from the natural world and specific stories or reflections on loss and grief rooted in the specifics of each loss. But this little poem also brings to light the challenge these days for most of us with our ubiquitous so-called devices to stay present to the world outside the internet and to stay present to the many discomforts and the loneliness of being alive in this world.

Jennifer’s forth collection of poems proves she knows her phone or other electronic device is not the world. She is not dead, nor dying, yet! But in her clinging to it I hear the need to escape the bruising and loneliness from the reality of death and other losses up close and personal. But that escaping is its own dying, at least for me, at times!

Jennifer is not a stranger to these pages. I posted a blog on her January 27th, 2021. To read my feature of her and her marvelous poem, Over and Above, which is included in the new collection, please click here. For those of you not familiar with her she is a professor of literature, creative qwriting and translation at the University of Rochester and director (since 2017) of the prestigous Bread Loaf  Writers’ Conference. In addition to her four poetry collections she has translated poetry collection from French and Polish. Her co-translation with  Piotr Sommer in 2021 of Everything I Don’t Knowby the Polish poet, Jerzy Ficowski,  won the 2022 Pen Award for Poetry in Translation.

Especially in her poem Over and Above, some of her poems brush up against prayer. Leave me with a sense of a devotional poet addressing some presence, some knowing, greater than her. Echoing the French philosopher, activist and author, Simone Weil definition of prayer, Jennifer writes about the end of a relationship, being alone again:

Because I didn’t want it to end,
and because i was all alone again,
because in those seasons attention
was my only form of prayer,
I attended the summer rain.

This attending ( I so appreciate this verb form of attention, the surprise of it) becomes her prayer. To whom or what doesn’t seem to matter. This paying attention to rain which becomes her consolation. No angels or trumpets. Something as simple yet as profound as listening to the rain:

It had been born, it seemed to say,
like any living thing, from certain
right conditions, it had gained force,
as it grew and persisted to stay alive.
And the rain could pray harder
than me. It continued even when
I stopped listening, then started again.

How one persistence could seem to stop time for a moment, for an afternoon. To encourage a persistence in this speaker in a poem. To remind me, as a reader, how to pray for, be grateful for, persistence.

In an interview on her new book Jennifer admits this collection is much more autobiographical. And it is. But her stories of loss, from love lost and beloveds gone, are not closed doors. They let me come in with my lost loves, my deaths and to know I am not alone. Someone else went through this and survived. And in her naming of these losses I receive, perhaps strangely, consolation.

The consolation from this devastating poem below of the end of a relationship. The recognition of the generosity of a partner in the awful ache of leaving. And how physical and concrete Jennifer makes that leaving. How I have been devestated by two marriage break-ups. How this poem reminds me I was not alone in my devestation no matter the circumstances.

Staring into the Sun

What had been treacherous the first time
had become second nature, releasing
the emergency brake, then rolling backward
in little bursts, braking the whole way down
the long steep drive. Back then,
we lived on the top of a hill.

I was leaving—the thing we both knew
and didn’t speak of all summer. While you
were at work, I built a brown skyline of boxes,
sealed them with a roll of tape
that made an incessant ripping sound.
We were cheerful at dinner and unusually kind.
At night we slept under a single sheet,
our bodies a furnace if curled together.

It was July. I could feel my pupils contract
when I went outside. Back then,
I thought only about how you
wouldn’t come with me. Now I consider
what it took for you to help me go.
On that last day. When I stood
in a wrinkled dress with aching arms.
When there was only your mouth at my ear
whispering to get in the truck, then wait
until I was calm enough to turn the key.

Only then did we know. How it felt
to have loved to the end, and then past the very end.
What did you do, left up there in the empty house?
I don’t know why. I don’t know
how we keep living in a world
that never explains why.

Jennifer Grotz, from Still Falling, Graywolf Press, 2023

That last stanza. Something so moving about it. Its structure, its music. The caesura’s in the first four lines. How they break up the momentum. Mirroring this break up. Then the searing fifth line which read as a poetic line strikes at the heart of the matter: I don’t know why. I don’t know. This adds a terribble poignancy when read on its own. Suggests the speaker doesn’t know why they ended. Then the grammatical sentence continues after I don’t know to add a wide focused existential question. This move from close-in personal to the wide-open question of how it is we keep living in a world/ that never explains why. This ouch that is the experience of being human.

As much as many of these poems choose living in spite of death and loss there feels like a real see-saw battle in some poems between deep despair and remembering joy remains. I think of the poem All the Little Clocks Wind Down, the despair at the end:

I stare at water, at cloud, at sky
trying to see through to the other side.
For a while it worked, this life
I made, these poems that made
wanting, not having, enough.

This ouch. Then, the last poem In Sicily the speaker awakes in terror from a dream that felt like a near-death experience, her joining the dead. But the poem ends with resounding force of Robert Frost’s great line from his poem Birches: Earth’s the right place for love:

But later I understood: though they were gone
I didn’t want to go to them, there was not other
place to go, Earth’s the right place for love.
This world, the living, the mind where
the literal and figurative collide. Not death
where darkness and silence and dust are
only darkness and ailence and dust.

Although these lines embrace life and living they do not seem to indicate a believer’s sense in heaven or the after life. Not that hope. And in the poem Grief with it’s unrelenting sorrow to begin with the speaker references prayer and one of the definitions of prayer: something understood, in a poem by the great 17th Century devotional poet George Herbert. And she responds:

which conjured me shelter, I stood under
something. Was it heaven? What did I understand?
World slowed down and broken and random and wrong:
I stood under nothing at all. Except memory,
how once, a summer morning years ago, I stood
over grass gleaming with dew and watched
countlress tiny frogs leap like exclamations.

This consolation: the frogs. But no consolation for the speaker of knowing she stood under heaven. The shocking: I stood under nothing at all. Has this speaker lost faith? Lost belief in a heaven where God lives? Perhaps. But she has not lost faith in life. Even, in love. There are memories of wonders and astonishments. And Frost’s assertion: Earth is the right place for love.


  1. Nan Goodship
    Posted September 27, 2023 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    thank you Richard. I appreciate your posts and getting to know new poets (so many I am not familiar with). Digging in with gratitude. Nan

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted October 6, 2023 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Much love to you and thanks.

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