Let’s play an ice breaker. If poet Michalle Gould’s collection, Resurrection Party, were a drink, it would not be served in a pineapple, with a jaunty umbrella cocked over the rim. It would be an aperitif, dry-witted, served in a vintage glass. If Resurrection Party were a party guest, it would not wear a high-slitted, sequined dress, rather, something timeless, tailored: one of Dior’s suits for women, perhaps.
Resurrection Party is a book to be taken seriously, and Gould’s talent, the same. The collection opens with epigraphs from T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, announcing the ambition within the pages that follow. Written over 15 years, the poems discuss life as it leads toward death, death itself, and what might follow after. It is not morbid, however (do not think Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice); rather, it takes a more realistic, while highly imaginative, approach to the subject matter. The collection is a bit like a stately older relative who will show you her favorite brooch, and then mention idly it’s yours after her impending death. It’s comfortable subject matter, for her. And, similar to how a conversation with someone near death will jump mid-sentence from today’s headlines to potential epitaphs, the poems of Resurrection Party move from life to death both between, and within, each other. Gould analyzes death and what precedes (and follows) it from every angle, calling on mythology, Shakespeare, fairy tales, religion, other works of art, and daily life to inform her beautiful language.
The opening poem is a fine example of this. “How Not to Need Resurrection” is a didactic, as conveyed by its title. It opens the book by introducing us to the world of children playing dead, then losing interest “and play instead / at being lost or married,” which teaches readers that “they are the first resurrectionists, they alone / understand the trick is not to try, / that once you believe in death, you must surely die.” A reader might be reminded of Wile E. Coyote walking off the cliff and finally looking down, only then to fall. The journey Gould takes us on is to bring us back from the point of adulthood, to not believe in, or fear, death. The secret is really to hover there, after we’ve walked off the cliff, to be in abeyance in mid air.
Just as the themes of life, death, and what follows intermingle seamlessly, like guests at a successful party, so too do the elements of craft Gould employs her poems. Line breaks, rhythm, and rhyme all work elegantly together to set the backdrop for the subject matter of each poem. To be overly simplistic and borrow an oft used metaphor, in Gould’s work, it feels a bit as though the subject matter is the painting, and the elements of craft, the frame. And Gould is a most talented curator of the museum of her work, which is to say, the intricate methods used never overshadow the meaning of the poems. Consider the poem, “In the dreams of the Venus de Milo…,” whose opening reads:
The earth gives endless birth to hands
she cannot shake or grasp.
Oh drowning men, you must await
another savior. Clasp
her ankle though you might
she will elude you.
The imaginative premise created by the title is fulfilled by the poem, where, as it continues, the Venus de Milo is challenged to save her children, and, limited by the tools she has available, “chews through the ground” to search for her arms at the poem’s close. But supporting the bizarre imagery of the poem is its technical merit. This poem is one of a few that use mid-clause enjambment in its line breaks. Consider the fourth line, and the word “Clasp”—its rhyme with “grasp,” coupled with the s-cluster sound of “sp” puts a mighty amount of stress on the word, pausing the line dramatically, just as a drowning man would grip a potential rescuer. As the eye moves to the next line, and its more seamless line breaks, we can nearly experience the feel of the grip loosening, and so the drowning men slip noiselessly into their bodies of water.
There is no first person poem written in unadorned language about coming across a body at a young age, tucked within Resurrection Party’s pages, as another poet addressing these themes might include. But the book is better for it, as otherwise this curious reader might be looking for the autobiographical detail at every volta. Instead, the themes remain universal, and Gould’s preoccupation with death becomes the reader’s preoccupation with death, meaning, it seems natural now to look at the world on her terms. Take the poem, “Signs,” and its close.
The end is nigh proclaims a sign left in the middle of the road,
The rapture approaches, but where is the prophet?
Taken away to heaven?
Perhaps the end is already here.
A more literal viewer, walking past such a sign, might think the prophet was on a bathroom break. But Gould, and reader, too, create and accept a world where the prophet’s absence is indicative of his levitation to the heavens. Gould is poet, is observer, is interpreter of the world, and in her interpretations what constitutes an ending is also a beginning. The poem “Signs” does not even appear toward the end of the book, where another poet might be tempted to put it, but the book instead proceeds onward, business as usual, from the poem’s closing declaration.
A reader finding humor in the moment of prophetic sign without prophet would not be amiss, I don’t think, and by bringing death and resurrection to the day-to-day, Gould can incorporate wit. Death and life are human, and therefore flawed, and therefore funny. A second read of Resurrection Party brings these moments of wit and idiosyncrasy to the forefront (think of the names of paints in the poem, “Where there are doors, there are colors of doors..,” my favorites being described in the following passage, “After the house has been painted ‘the color of an apple/With a worm inside of it,’ using highlights of ‘William Blake’s/The Sick Rose’ and lowlights of “a heart that will be broken twice,…’”).
Returning to my ice breaker, if Resurrection Party were a party, it would be a New Year’s party, marking an ending and beginning all at once. If you didn’t go, and you saw your friends posting pictures at Resurrection Party on Facebook, you would regret your decision. Here is your invitation—it is a party not to be missed.