Henrietta Goodman reads from All That Held Us at Shakespeare & Co. Wed., April 11, at 7 PM. Free.
Some books of poems beg the reader to examine each poem individually, like flipping coins over in your hand, one by one. Other books of poems feel epic: The author asks you to gulp down all the poems at once to reach full effect. Henrietta Goodman’s All That Held Us lies somewhere between the two — each of her untitled Italian sonnets is linked to the one that comes before it with a single line, image or idea, creating something reminiscent of a garland or a necklace or a prayer flag. The result is a book of poems that can each stand alone gracefully as single beads, but reach their full potential when they flow together one after another.
The book, which was published as a result of winning the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, consists of three groups of 16 Petrarchan sonnets, all thoughtfully and carefully rhymed and metered. Besides being a book of poems, it’s a memoir: Goodman spends each tidy block of text exploring some facet of her past. As she writes in one poem, “the past never makes anything from scratch,” and her poems reflect that, reaching back generations, circling back on images and ideas, echoing lines and thoughts as she returns and re-returns to the memories and themes of her childhood.
The book centers on a small core of women: Goodman, herself, her mysterious (or perhaps just unknowable) mother, her grandmother and her aunt, a hoarder of physical objects but also memories and thoughts, which she scribbled everywhere. “We didn’t know any men at all,” Goodman writes in the first poem, setting up a narrative that is largely one of femininity and being female as well as one of not quite knowing how to know men. When men do appear in the book — her largely absent father, a boyfriend, handymen — they are treated as foreigners, needed but not needed, wanted but not wanted. In one poem she writes, “The thing to do with any snake was find/a man to kill it, no matter what kind/of snake, or kind of man.”
The sonnets feel like a perfect vehicle for Goodman’s story. They offer her a strict scaffolding from which she can build her messy story. They stand in stark contrast to her aunt’s piles of boxes and trash and moldy food, as well as to her mother’s confusing guidance and mystifying actions. They also offer a tidy way of processing: The opening octave often offers up an event or a thought, which winds up in complexity over the first eight lines. Then, with the rhyme scheme change in the ninth line comes a break in tension, a sestet of greater understanding and analysis. But before any tidy conclusions can be made (sonnets love tidy conclusions), Goodman whisks you to her next sonnet, which opens with a thread from the last — perhaps the fourth line of the last poem repeated, or just a handful of words or a little phrase stolen from the page before, or a flash of an image we’ve just seen. The echo presents you with a new moment from her life, and a new puzzle and new tension.
Like any good story, the tiny arcs of each sonnet create larger arcs. The poems in the first section are formative, the second arc is filled with conflict, the final third filled with reflection, deeper understanding, and forward movement. One of the strongest poems of the book appears at the beginning of the third act, when a man at one of Goodman’s readings asks if she’s ever written anything positive about her father — and the last line of the poem is, “So this, my answer.” It’s a moment of strength and clarity after both the reader and Goodman have waded this far. And like many of the poems in the last third of the book, they feel powerful and rewarding.
Also like a garland or a necklace or a rosary, the poems in All That Held Us encourage you to create a circle. Upon reading the last line of the last poem (which is about Goodman’s parents), the first urge is to flip to the front again, to read the cycle again, with your new knowledge of Goodman’s story and her world. And, you guessed it, the first line of the first poem is also about Goodman’s parents.