Poetry used to be something. It used to unite. Homer and Virgil preached their poems as history, a foundation for pride, as lessons to be learned from. And the people, they listened. For centuries we clung to the words of our poets, believing them to be closer to the divine, hoping they could make sense of our seemingly senseless world. Now we quibble over the artistry of Billy Collins; we denounce the fecundity of William Stafford; we despair in the long-lined mash of Allen Ginsburg; we have clipped the heels of poetry. And the people? We forgot.
Poetry is no longer a tablet passed down from the divines. There’s no Wordsworth, no Pope, no Shakespeare to tell us how to write or what the people want to hear. So we’re left with this pulsing dichotomy: the competition between those who hold Poetry as classical, slowly blooming artistry and those who see her as written revolution, raw emotion, formless-flowing pageantry.
Christina Garcia creates a work that defies these differences with The Lesser Tragedy of Death. And while it’s no great accomplishment to step outside of poetical norms, it is a feat to do it so artfully––and with her freshman attempt, no less. Yet while Lesser Tragedy successfully unifies old and new notions of poetry, it does so by chronicling the destruction of a family, especially the self-destruction of the speaker’s brother. There are arrests, diagnoses of bipolar disorder, crack pipes and grim, neon-lit cityscapes: all subjects relatively new to the poetry pantheon. At the same time, there is the conventional: conversations about nightingales, weddings, unrequited love, far-removed farms, and stern fathers.
Garcia can accomplish this because of her deft use of various forms, by mixing styles, tones, languages and culture, by confessing without being a Confessional Poet. Garcia’s spare language lucidly invokes the brother’s insistence on remaining a wreck and the speaker’s helplessness to stop him. The poem “Fried Rice” begins, “You tried to hack off your arm with a butcher’s knife;” the poem never says why. This unflinching statement, this calm expression of ineffable struggle, is something Lesser Tragedy excels in. That isn’t to say that the book is devoid of emotion. It is the opposite, in fact. We are shown the speaker’s wishes, dreams, hopes, fears, and realities––each of which are expressed equally with stern delicacy.
Garcia doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the brother’s life, but we can tell the difficulty she has in coming to terms with what she’s undertaken. In the preface poem “Tapestry,” she admits her doubts about the righteousness of the poems that follow:
You come speak to me… This business of biography is a sham. Thin green brocade of words. Knots of grief. Can grief be a gift? I fear it will make me your enemy but you must trust me: I offer this in peace.
It is implied that she’s speaking to her brother, but we can also see this as an appeal to herself, a way to fight off the reservations every author has about penning the ugly truths of life. And that’s the saddest part––these poems are true and they’re still evolving; the continuity of the irreversible spiral of life toward the lesser tragedy of death.