Monday, August 31, 2009

Review of "An Undertaking" by Jeffrey Harrison

This is an expanded version of a grad school assignment - my review of Jeffrey Harrison's chapbook An Undertaking. (Have I mentioned my Poetry Workshop has a chapbook focus? It's really cool - each week we'll read 2 chapbooks (give or take) and write a one paragraph response to each, then choose one poem from either book and write a poem in response to, or in imitation of, or otherwise relating to, it. That's the first half of the semester; second half we'll continue reading chapbooks, start researching chapbook competitions, and put together our own chapbook type collections. Super cool, huh?) This is the first chapbook I've read and responded to for that class. I didn't love it, but I appreciate it. For more detail, read on....

Oh, and I may post reviews of all (or most) of the chapbooks I read for that class. I know I will post a review of Lisa Ciccarello's At Night, the Dead later this week, as part of the Read Write Poem Virtual Book Tour so stay tuned for more book-reviewing goodness :)

--- end babbling. begin review. ---

Jeffrey Harrison’s chapbook An Undertaking embodies its title in two ways. The word “undertaking” immediately conjures thoughts of a journey or a project, but once a reader sees that the chapbook is dedicated to someone who’s recently died “undertaking” seems to imply all things funereal. The collection opens with a poem called “Saint” in which the poet addresses a sculpted stone saint in a museum and asks for his prayers, and then the bulk of the chapbook contains a group of poems that focus on the suicide of the poet’s brother Andy at age 47 but also delve beneath the surface of his life and into the processes of grieving and healing. The collection closes with a poem titled “Visitation” in which the poet’s mother hears the song of white-throated sparrows and, in the song of these “family birds” she hears the memory of loved ones gone but also the knowledge that everything will be all right, and that the sparrows, like all people and things, “…will stay/ for only a few days before moving on.” In spite of the big subjects of suicide and death, Harrison’s poems are most memorable when they include concrete details like Andy’s seeming obsession with socks, discovered by his parents and brother only after his death, the rhyming scavenger hunt clues he wrote for his niece and nephew, and the silly songs he sang to a Newfoundland dog when the boys were younger.

Some poems like “The Investigation” and “Plea” use form, rhyme, and repetition to order the emotion while others explore different line lengths and stanza patterns. The poem “The Investigation” is particularly interesting to me because it makes use of the villanelle form to harness the emotion of the subject. The conversational diction and straightforward narrative style develop in the reader the same distance that the poet eventually achieves at the end of the piece. After struggling to understand his brother’s death, he realizes that he never really will, and that he has to “let it go”, a phrase that echoes throughout the poem. The structure of the poem and the enforced casualness of the language remind me of the way that many people deal with loss: we force ourselves to keep up with our habits and our schedules, to keep up appearances, and to speak and act as though things are fine. In life, as in the poem, the acting will eventually bring us to the reality.

Overall, the language in these poems is remarkably restrained, the opposite of the melodrama one might expect based on the subject matter. While I admire Harrison’s ability to process emotions rationally through words, I personally felt an almost-forced calmness in the poems and would have liked to see a bit more rawness emerge in this chapbook. The physical chapbook, from Haven Press, is a beautiful artifact: dark grey covers, letterpress printing on cover and title page, handsewn binding; and the poems contained inside tell a sad story in accessible language. An Undertaking is available on

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