After the Tour by Jennifer Minniti-Shippey
Calypso Editions, December 2018
72 pages / Calypso
may the tower make a fool out of you,
may you speak to the tower
other names for the heart:
fortress, citadel, stronghold, fastness.
(For the Tower)
Three days after my cat died prematurely and unexpectedly, I was scheduled to read at a local poetry series. I had spent that day, like the ones preceding it, in bed, in the bathtub, on the sofa, alternating sleeping and sobbing, definitely not wanting to interact with anyone. Jenny Minniti-Shippey came to that reading, despite being in her own period of mourning – she had lost her beloved German shepherd not two weeks earlier – and hugged me with a warmth and understanding I didn’t know I needed. “All I do is cry,” I literally cried at her, in public, 30+ people around, all of whom were about to watch me read poems at them. “It’s okay,” she said, “we can cry together.”
You are a country open to death,
you, the horizon of barking dogs.
You are not consolation.
You are the dark sound.
The next week I received her new collection, After the Tour, and it felt like just that – the crying in public, the comfort of a hug I didn’t know I needed, the depth of a grief I didn’t know I was capable of, an empathetic witness to all my melancholy. I read the book in one sitting on my tiny stoop outside my San Diego apartment, palm trees navigated between the clutter of powerlines and tile roofs in the distance, my remaining cat clawing listlessly at the concrete next to me.
A whole sun-skinned nation
later and I am on my knees
I am trying, just try
ing to love this again, my life.
(Last Days of June)
It was all bitterly perfect ambience for After the Tour, a book that read to me about the depth of mourning and the sad weight of love, a book that came to me exactly when I needed it.
Divided into four sections, it is the middle two – “After the Tour” and “Book of Seductions” – that make up the bulk of the collection, sandwiched by the elegies “For the Tower” and “In the Land of Linnea,” the latter poem which in itself ends with a musical dal segno of the words “dead” and “living” and “jade-green,” lending a calm beauty to the boundaries between death and love that permeate the collection. Minniti-Shippey unites elements from Irish ballad and American pastoralism, entwined with the malaise of a modernity scourged by violence, and expectation, and hopelessness – all drafted in a lyricism that feels clean and aerated.
In the “After the Tour” section, Minniti-Shippey poignantly combines themes and images of love, relationships – the sweetness of a lover’s skin on one page – with those of violence and war and decay. In one poem she writes, “I’ll make tea, pay half the bills,/ we’ll census dead birds and marvel// at their eyes still, still/ unblinking into us” (Third Tour).
Combining this tranquil domesticity with death is only heightened by the fact many of these poems are named in sequential “Tours” – an homage to the militarization referenced throughout the book, and especially pointed in the opening poem of this section, “To the Boy Reading Harry Potter on His Bunk in Afghanistan.” The collection thrusts you in to its quiet chaos like a boy being thrust into war, trying to square some kind of normalcy with the horrors of a world obsessed with violence – a lieutenant is disappointed at the lack of active shooting, so the “rifle rests on dark-green blanket,/ like it dreams of rivers,/ red-haired women.”
It is this juxtaposition of the almost idyllic mundanity of romance with violence that gives After the Tour its weight of mourning. It comes through in even subtler ways, civilian ways – watching horses in a pasture above from a helicopter – serenity of field assaulted by the modernity of whirring blades. Or what happens to a boy’s body when it meets a car, or a bullet, instead of losing its virginity (After News of a High School Friend’s Death,).
Bless the bullet as it leaves the gun.
Bless the brain, the heart.
After, bless the silence and all the things named:
“After the Tour” closes with a series of poems that darken and quiet, putting a somber punctuation on this second section before a jarring morning-after with “Book of Seductions.” This third section of the collection then opens shifting in tone, focusing more on the eroticism and joy of the body, my body/your body/their body and everything between/around, and even fantasy football turns sexy and we all “stand for a moment/ in the glow of my breasts and say words/ to that effect” (September (1)).
But it’s hard to forget what we just experienced in the previous section, and a layer of loneliness and isolation quickly reveals itself beneath these poems. Where in one line there is closeness: “one bartender pressing me against the beer cooler,” in another there is distance: “Roger, I say to the ringing,/ my hair is longer now.” It reads as a travelogue of lovers that focuses in to one protagonist: Isabelle (who had been introduced in the previous section, but becomes a more focused character here). And through the sequence of romanticized interactions, heavy drinking, there comes the depth of something more – a sister’s brush with death, a father’s email saying at the same time nothing and so much. Until even the most pleasant moments are colored dark as “Jane’s” hair, who as her titular poem states, “will be darker forever than you/ and more desirable.”
What began as a reveling in flesh becomes sites of pain, sites of hunger, of distance. And in the close of this section Minniti-Shippey throws off all these other bodies in a poem titled, “Moonlighting as the Angel of Death,” lest the reader forget we’ve been in mourning, lest the reader forget this is not just about the joys of love, but the grief of it. “So we remember we are made of earth,” she writes, “and as earth we shall all return.”
When we lose someone/thing we love – a pet, a romance, a friend, an idea – we don’t just lose that item, but we lose pieces of ourself. That’s part of why grief is so painful, so unmooring. Minniti-Shippey takes that aspect of grief and paints its myriad manifestations in these poems. The title of this collection itself, After the Tour, hearkens to what comes after, both literally – politically – in war/conflict, but then also after the tour of our own selves, the conflicts of our hearts, the exploration of the emptinesses we are left with. But even as this collection shows us the weight of grief, the violence of mourning, the loneliness of love, it also paints numerous beautiful moments that string together to teach us what this weight is worth. While we lose ourselves in the horrors of another international conflict, the distance of another unanswered call, the bottom of another gin and tonic, Jenny Minniti-Shippey reminds us that there is also dog with her paws in damp sand, a piebald running, warm skin, the prairie, quiet and giving you permission to cry with it.
Silence snaps down the backs of the coyotes,
silence, and the prairie all around us. The breeze.
(The Prairie All Around Us)