Julie Gard’s first full-length book has a straightforward veneer: it’s a collection of linked prose poems about family, a queer long-term relationship, and vividly detailed lives in the Upper Midwest. But celebration or even contemplation of the subjects at hand feel secondary to Gard’s ambitious project of anticipating and challenging our preconceptions about them. The poems accomplish this with a stealth so intelligent that the reader is often caught unawares, as the careful perceptions quietly at work here settle in.
Gard writes about her adopted daughter, her parents, and her partner, but is more likely to revel in the unknowns and ambiguities in her relationships with them than pay them tribute. “I have no idea how to live,” begins “Poem To Live By,” oddly, since it follows 50-odd poems that can feel like a subtle, covert set of instructions on how to live. Though the poem’s action concerns the poet’s runaway daughter and her own deceased father, its core argument is that thinking about our loved ones can feel overwhelming, stifling, and even terrifying: “All winter I tried to exist without thought, like a blank sheet of paper.” The speaker is unsuccessful: she finds “a fire burned in my gut; I could see it through my skin.”
Studying her domestic life, Gard investigates many different dimensions of thought, often shedding light on its limitations as an emotional coping mechanism. Consider the unremarkable events of “Note To Self”: the poet has fallen down the porch steps, dropping a notebook, her phone, and a mug of tea. Gard finds a poem in this mundane incident, locating her subject in the emotional states the fall inspires: “A state of shock…followed by acceptance.” Later: “I would complain to the authorities, but they sleep and steer clear of the winter streets. I am on my own.”
In 2006, a neighbor tried to burn down Gard’s home. One section of the book is a series of short prose pieces titled for objects at the thrift shop where the arsonist worked (prices included.) The description of these objects and the events leading up to the arson meld horror and banality. There is no resolution, only further thought. Ordering and cataloging yields art, yet the book quietly insists that the mystery, beauty, and horrors of the world must be experienced in order to be—however hesitantly, however partially—understood.