You might look at the cover of Sonia Greenfield’s hybrid memoir Letdown with confusion. The word, in transparent orange, is positioned like a label beneath the head of a baby. The photograph, in black and white, shows mother’s hands forming parentheses around the child. Fine, dark hair already grows, but the baby is quite young. Too young to be a letdown.
But this is the tension of the book, and thus, the tension within its speaker, held between two extremes: care and compassion for her complicated child, and endless space where care and compassion should be for the other child she cannot have. It’s hard in these circumstances not to feel let down, and like a letdown. This is the bittersweet burden I experienced with her as I read her sophomore collection.
Letdown is described in the press kit as a “love letter to her firstborn.” A book-length sequence with 64 short prose parts, Letdown is still a heavy tome; each word chosen for its density, carrying each part of the sequence far beyond its deceiving dimensions on the page.
Greenfield doesn’t say any more than she needs to, preferring to let load-bearing words and images create all the world the reader needs. “[…] a shattered rainbow of raffle tickets confetti the ground,” the speaker says. And later, “[…] doctors rounded in roving packs offering the word discharge.”
Greenfield’s proficiency as a writer is undeniable as she hands the reader fully polished poems that each can stand alone and that each can also contribute to a story of birth, motherhood, diagnosis, and miscarriage. But “polish” doesn’t mean perfection. Indeed, many of her poems are raw moments of a life ripped and presented to the reader, ragged edges and all. “Your father didn’t know how to turn both to me and away.”
Sometimes, the speaker feels detached, compartmentalizing as one must in order to survive exceedingly difficult experiences, as though her life is winter viewed through glass. And yet, she still lays bare those experiences—an unflinching built by a million flinches.
She doesn’t bemoan her state; she catalogs it, breaking what could have been a punishing self-narrative into pieces we can examine along with her: “Your first shoes are my last first shoes.”
I didn’t at first know how to approach Letdown; I felt like a well-meaning friend standing next to a crying person, unsure whether to reach out or whether just remaining present is what they need. I don’t and won’t know childbirth, caring for and raising a child. I showed up to this speaker single and still the only object of my own attention; a greedy sort of focus I sometimes feel quite guilty about.
But there is no judgement from Letdown’s speaker. There is only her truth, described with utmost clarity in no uncertain terms. While it’s still impossible for me to fully understand the heartache of losing a baby, or the courage mustered from an invisible store and expended to guide a child through the world, thanks to Letdown, I’m closer to understanding than I’ve ever been.
You don’t have to be a woman to be impacted by this book. Honestly, it would be great if men would read it. To immerse oneself wholly in a voice not like your own (the speaker’s husband is barely there, only occasionally poking his head in while making his rounds) is an exercise that anyone with a true appreciation of literature should undertake on occasion.
I dwell much more outside of the speaker’s world than I dwell in, but I was still supremely affected by that world, and much of that can be attributed to Greenfield’s writing. No two parts are alike, but all are accessible. You’ll find no trickery or poetic devices that cloud. None are needed; the truth suffices, and then some. “I can’t write lines that matter, I’m so dumb with love.”
Many of her pieces have arresting first lines, startling imagery, and whammy endings. “One can barely call it a miscarry when what is carried out is just a speck of desire embedded in blood.”
Greenfield takes it upon herself, too, to rejuvenate well-worn ideas and images, repurposing what we take for granted and restoring our attention. “[…] writing from your Jonah’s prison on the round red wall, your small cell in salt and sea.”
The flow and order of parts of Letdown reflect the chaos of a lived life: devastating heartbreaks punctuated by respites and kindnesses that trail into the hopeful uncertainty of the future. Pain bleeds into love and vice versa. Sonia Greenfield’s is a voice of value, and I hope to hear it for years to come.
Letdown was released on March 31, 2020 with praise from Brenda Shaughnessy, Maggie Smith, and Beth Ann Fennelly. Letdown is available now and was published by White Pine Press as part of their Marie Alexander Poetry Series.
Risa Pappas is a poet, filmmaker, writer, editor, audiobook narrator, and public speaker. She has most recently been published in the River Heron Review, Inklette Magazine, and bluntly magazine and is Senior Editor at Tolsun Books. Risa received her MFA in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She currently resides near Philadelphia.