Shaped by Absence: Henrietta Goodman’s "All That Held Us"
Henrietta Goodman | All That Held Us | BkMk Press | April 1, 2018 | 61 Pages
Henrietta Goodman’s third collection, All That Held Us, winner of the John Ciardi Prize at BkMk Press, is an inviting and unsettling volume of verse. A collection of linked Petrarchan sonnets, it tells the story of a girl growing into womanhood within a complex familial and social matrix. Goodman’s formal control and dexterity give the collection a strong sense of coherence, and there is a sense of narrative progression and chronological sequence as the poems chronicle the narrator’s experience as a child, a girl, a young woman, and finally an adult. And yet, there is also always a circling back. The sonnets are not individually titled, which makes them feel less like separate, stand-alone poems, and more like pieces of a larger puzzle. Each sonnet begins with a line or phrase taken from the preceding one, often changing or complicating its meaning. The poems deal with family history, trauma, relationships, sexuality, culture, social norms, and how these lived experiences interact and intersect. Goodman’s poetics is one of probing, questioning, questing—in search of self-knowledge, self-actualization, control over her own story.
The volume begins with a childhood scene that sets up some of the tensions involving family, culture, gender, and sexuality. The girl is already beginning to chafe against the mother’s “antique / Southern world.” The narrator reflects on the mother-daughter relationship with a mixture of grief and empathy:
I should feel sorrow
instead of blame, but even now I speak
as though she wronged me. In her white high-waist
bikini, she stood just knee-deep, the lake
a green lapping danger. She couldn’t swim.
Where are they? And when? Is it a photograph? The details aren’t clear, so we participate in the epistemological uncertainty that the narrator herself is grappling with. The mother, who can’t swim, can hardly provide guidance.
In the next poem, Goodman examines “All that held them captive, / propriety and fear.” Family and cultural conditioning are limiting and confining, and only makes it harder to figure out what healthy adult relationships should look like. “I’d survive / that lumpy pillow,” but is that all there is? What makes a satisfying relationship? The poignant closing lines ask the question, but don’t offer an answer:
Think of the window to a room, not rape,
for once, not rape. He’s climbing into her;
she’s climbing out—do you conceive? That’s love.
Lovemaking here is a disembodied experience, an experience of estrangement, the narrator’s mind focused on windows and escape. In a later poem, we learn about a childhood rape which, for the adult narrator, makes desire inseparable from grief. When she inexplicably bleeds on her wedding night, she wonders what could have caused it:
I wouldn’t say desire
or grief, though grief is close. I didn’t know
enough to grieve the girl I’d been. I stripped
her off, gave her away, called her liar.
A woman can quite literally go crazy from the demands placed on her. The narrator’s aunt, who never married and dies a virgin, is neurotic to the point of mental illness—she is a hoarder, obsessed with germs and cleanliness, and has a vile temper. She presents a cheerful façade at church, but “Who guessed / the emptiness she couldn’t fill?” We sense the terrible weight of a wasted life in the “notes she wrote to God or no one, scraps / of paper buried under piles of stuff.” As the narrator enters puberty, neither the mother nor the aunt are any help, so she’s on her own:
The teenaged storm
of hormones brewed over my head, a sky
of restless wings.
Despite the narrator’s shyness around boys, desire restlessly asserts itself, and eventually finds fulfillment. And yet, despite discovering the pleasure of sex, the narrator struggles to establish healthy relationships. She has been taught that to need is to show weakness, and that being strong means being the powerful one. Goodman probes the territory between need and desire:
A cut that bleeds
needs stitches, but desire’s the force that pleads
for more than life, a lie that wants a cure.
Why is desire “a lie that wants a cure”? Is it because desire disguises itself as need? Does it trick us into situations that will turn out badly? Having been taught to be the powerful one, the narrator ends up with boyfriends who are emotionally fragile: one hangs himself, and another “fits / his mouth around a gun and shuts his eyes.” Goodman is clear-eyed and unsentimental even as she observes with deep empathy the tremendous emotional cost, borne by both women and men, of a culture that straightjackets people into limited and limiting constructions of masculinity and femininity.
The next poem elaborates on the previous one’s riddling characterization of desire as “a lie that wants a cure.” We normally think of a ‘cure’ being something health-giving or restorative, but not here:
I called desire a lie that wants a cure,
but don’t assume the cure for lies is truth,
or that by cure I meant a kind of health.
The scene now shifts to her family home, which also was borne of desire—the desire that brought her parents together, however briefly. The narrator looks back on that family dynamic in order to understand her adult life:
In that house, moods and silence made obscure
judgments, so how could anyone be sure
what filled the gaps—willful blindness, or stealth?
They spoke in archetype—the father, youth
and age, the woods, the snake.
No one ever has all the details of their family story, and besides, how can one be sure of her memories? So the narrator mythologizes the family story, as if it’s an archetypal story rather than the one that’s unique to her family. The characters are types rather than individuals, their speech, moods, and silence inscrutable. Goodman’s poetry suggests that in the absence of certainty or truth, the best one can do is to accept the limits of what can be known, and create a story one can live with.
The narrator grieves the absent father by rehearsing the few details she knows about him:
I knew he read
Macbeth, gambled in Vegas, disliked wine,
seduced my mother…
How is she to grieve someone she hardly knew? It would have been easier to grieve him if he had died, “since who he would have been if he were dead / was mostly up to me.” In other words, she could create her own fantasy of a dead father. Instead, she knows the father has past wives and children, so that she herself is almost like an afterthought: “By the time I came, / how could he find himself, in all those lives?”
In addition to the absent father, the narrator also grieves the boyfriends she sought to fill his place. One of these young men committed suicide, and his life is painted in just a few tragic brush-strokes:
beyond my reach, the way he lived—soundtrack
of his own losses a loop of feedback
I couldn’t interrupt, a lullaby.
The boyfriend, like the father, eludes her. The soundtrack metaphor is vivid and poignant, evoking a particular time, place, age, and state of mind. Goodman’s poetry is suffused with a sense of transience, of lives slipping through the narrator’s fingers. It redeems loss through the music of poetry.
As the narrator gets older, relationships give way to marriage and she returns to the question of whether relationships can ever be mutually satisfactory, or if we’re driven by forces other than love: fear, loneliness, social pressure, and so on. One poem asks, “was it pain / or bliss that longing brought?”—then concedes, “I mistook fear for love again, / then mistook love for fear.” These chiastic opposites fuse together, leading almost trance-like into marriage, the poem ending: “I slept then woke, opened my eyes, said yes.” Again, there is that mythical or fairy-tale quality. It’s the narrator’s story, but it also feels universal, like an archetype.
The motif of sleeping and dreaming leads into a poem about a childhood that feels like a forgotten dream, a dreamlike state of innocence from which she was rudely wakened by the terrible trauma of rape:
I slept then woke, most of those years a dream
not worth remembering. Afraid of men,
obedient, unblemished, I was ten
but swam in a placental dusk, a seam
of light around a door.
The childhood trauma is revealed towards the end of the sequence, and casts a retrospective light on the earlier poems about relationships and the inseparability of love and fear, pleasure and pain. Perhaps it’s only well into adulthood that the narrator is able to look back on that trauma, and finally reclaim the little girl she had earlier disavowed.
Through the course of the narrative, the speaker comes into her own as a woman and as a poet—taking control of her body, her selfhood, and her narrative. At 43, she is single, confident, and sexy on stage at a poetry reading:
That night I got all Sextoned up—red lips,
a vintage polka-dotted dress, rhinestone
earrings. Single at forty-three, I’d grown
volition, finally, and learned to sip
a drink, and when I stood up, hand on my hip,
to read these poems behind the microphone,
a man in the back row whispered “she’s fine,”
and it was true—this dress mine to unzip
or not, this story too. An older man
asked later if I’d ever tried to write
something positive about my father
and while I wondered if he meant certain
or nice, he asked didn’t I think it might
be therapeutic. So this, my answer.
Is writing therapeutic? What purpose does it serve, this memoir in verse? Perhaps the reflection and retrospection made possible by writing allows the narrator to finally own her story and her life, and achieve the confidence and poise we see in this poem. The narrator comes to accept that despite all the heartache, loss, and absence, it is her hard-won agency as a writer that redeems the pain. Goodman’s poetry suggests that there is still something to be gained even from loss. The book ends on this line: “but look at all that’s there, shaped by absence.” What’s there and shaped by absence is, of course, this gorgeous volume of verse. And as a reader, I’m grateful for that.