How does one explore the world of poetry? My current approach is to read Poetry magazine, earmark the poems that wow me, and search out the poets who wrote those poems. This is how I happened upon Gretchen Marquette’s May Day–I read her poem “Want” and loved the direct, narrative quality of her work immediately. Happily, Gray Wolf Press, who published her first book in 2016, was generous enough to send me a copy of it to review.
I’m so glad they did. This is a stellar book. Marquette has a narrative poetic voice that’s easy to read and compelling to follow. She paints vivid images using pithy descriptions. She, delightfully, never strays too far into the abstract; instead she takes the reader by the hand and walks them through her words.
So what is she writing about? For me, as a native midwesterner, that was one of the best parts. She writes about whitetail deer and the Midwestern outdoors. Much of the book is focused on the intimate experience of loss and longing for a loved one. She seems preoccupied with throats. Every so often sex and physical intimacy is woven in. Her worry about her brother, who is touring in Afghanistan and Iraq, is the subject of several poems. Science is a continual undercurrent in her poetry, specifically biology and astronomy. She has a fixation on stars and the night sky.
Throughout all of these themes, Marquette has as fresh, contemporary voice. And yet despite her youthful voice, she is clearly a very well-read and well-studied poet. Her work includes many references and homages to celebrated poets both recent and historical, including Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Frederico Garcia Lorca, the ancient Chinese poet Tu Fu. She doesn’t shy away from literary references. One entire poem is dedicated to the Redwall series, and another is written to the characters from Hansel and Gretel.
On occasion, her poems miss the mark a bit. If a fault can be found, it is that her writing at times feels as though it needs a bit more polish. In narrative poetry, you never want to lose your reader, and yet at times–just a few times, mind you–I did stumble as I followed along. A good example of this is in “Prophecy,” in which I found the first stanza to be a bit awkward. I found myself trying and failing, at first, to depict the situation she was describing with the keys. I also found that in a few poems her imagery didn’t really hook me, as in “Elsewhere,” which I honestly think is one of the weaker poems in the book.
The strengths of this collection far outweigh the faults, however. The best poem in the collection, by a landslide, is “Andromeda.” It is a masterful depiction of loss and longing with the backdrop of an entire galaxy. She has a beautiful way of expanding the readers sense of time and space and then shrinking it down with a few sharp images. “An Orange,” “What We Will Love with the Time We Have Left,” and “Ode to a Man in Dress Clothes” are my other favorites. The first two tackle serious matters–longing and loss, again–with gorgeous images and smart descriptions that stick in the mind. The third is simply a delightful read–a bit of a lighthearted departure for her.
I can’t wait to see what Marquette writes next. This book is a high-quality debut from a young poet whose potential is obvious and inspiring.