The River Won’t Hold You, Karin Gottshall
The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. 2014. 78 pp.

Every poet, as a job requirement, needs at least a tolerance for solitude. Better would be a positive taste for it, or, better still, as you’ll see in Karin Gottshall’s new prize volume The River Won’t Hold You, a lifelong vocation for loneliness and what poems can be found there. “Like other lonely beings I had a song,” she writes in “Snow House,” and in “The Tiger,”

I sat on the bench outside the stained glass
of the First Universalist, pretending I was inside. Tried
to pray for less shyness: what the old people called
making strange.

Starting as “an only child / weighing one form of solitude against another,” Gottshall’s young self finds companionship wherever she can, talking to animals, appliances, ghosts and God and other gods, an imaginary sister or equally imaginary granddaughters. Yet none of these is a second-best substitute for society; each is fully felt and valued. One human companion was an equally bookish soulmate, remembered in four subtly rhymed sonnets “To Celia,” a season-by-season year of intimate sharing of homework, fantasies and secrets. In spring,

You lift your skirt to show me the marbled bruise
some boy left. Come live with me and be my love,
you say, and we will all the pleasures prove.
Red squirrels quarrel in the branches above.
We’re holding hands and a moth, spring azure,
settles jewel-like against your long black hair.

Of course, prolonged isolation, however well-managed, is never a painless path. In “The Sliver,” a poem reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s “Cut” (“What a thrill – My thumb instead of an onion”), the narrator is pierced by a shard of glass.

The wound bubbles,
a small red mouth at my heel.
Just when I start to feel
like a rational human being
something like this has to happen.

In the collection’s title poem, evoking a river drowning, the poet confesses doubt that even death could be very much worse than life apart.

When no arms can soothe you,
there are weeds; fluids
gather at dark openings. A body
in the weeds: if this is death it was easy
in coming, and after all
it’s only a little less.

In a quietly stunning poem, “Why I Did It,” we hear a recitation of reasons for attempting to leave the world’s disappointments behind.

…Because you can’t
read by the light of an onion, and I’d never seen
my name written in calligraphy. Because I was so lonely
I talked to the radiators.
…Because the only ticket I could afford was to a city
where no one knew me and I’d never wanted to go.
Because I was pretty sure I’d eventually go there anyway.

And yet, finally, in “Lullaby,” another catalog of disturbing memories is carefully cradled, rocked and sung to sleep in a loving acceptance and affirmation of life-as-it-is:

Certificates, sugar and all my losses. Sleep
spider and sieve and passion and bristle,
harvest and fallow and femur and fire,
sleep empty. My losses. Loosen and slumber.

The River Won’t Hold You follows Gottshall’s 2007 volume Crocus and her chapbooks Flood Letters and Swan, more than fulfilling their promise of emotional power, dark humor, and unerring craft. I look forward to her next book and hope it will be sooner than seven years before I can read it.


David Weinstock
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