Goatfish Alphabet by Kristen McHenry

Goatfish AlphabetI am reading this book for the third time in as many years, carrying it into the library like a charm to make the other books talk, and into the gourmet section of the supermarket to awaken lust among the cheeses fresh from their caves. The first few pages bear greasy smudges near the bottom — what had I been eating the last time I read it?

The shoddy design, lack of pagination or ISBN, and other shortcomings of the book as object continue to annoy me, but I find the poems to be if anything more astonishing than they were the last time. I tell myself it isn’t they that are aging but the ripe cheese between my ears. The language is so good, at one point I realize I am actually drooling. I wipe my beard and hastily look around to see if anyone in the cafe noticed. I must be

half-dead with unspoke
(“The Goatfish Alphabet“)

as I slump

inch by mouldering inch,
Towards the soft enchantment of gravity.

The other patrons are like me, I think:

Joined, hushed, we gaze upon
the vibrant core of our loneliness.
Here, for a whole minute,

there is nothing but this hum.
(“Poetry Night at the Shelter: 1”)

It might be largely the effect of sleep deprivation, but

Today I’m transparent—all my buried happiness shows.
(“Jellyfish Dreams”)

This despite my gloomy conviction, as an environmentalist, that

My whole
damn species are fools, always skittering
toward some fresh perfection, always
outgrowing what loves us.
(“Hermit Crab’s Lament”)

But see, this is why great poetry can save us: learn to love it and you will need few other “fresh perfections.” You will ask yourself,

When did this snowy rush begin
to find a place of infinite containment;
to ground itself in the frantic waters
and anchor to the sea with its monstrous beams?
(“Touring the Glaciers“)

The question is,

are you simply willing
to fall out into the open world
with no keys, no mints, no stamps,
not a saltine to your name,
lacking chapstick, phone and change?

And when put that way, I’m not sure I can say yes myself. It’s tough to cut loose, especially (this may surprise you) for us hermits, whose shoes are

sloped with wear, in reusable shades:
beige, black and navy; made for plodding
from coop to kitchen on muscular feet.

It’s far easier to merely

launder the towels,
lay down upon them and dream
clean dreams

such as:

Meeting the morning, drinking the sun through my skin,
Tanned and wholesome as a granola commercial.

The land withholds its blessings, and we feel our rootlessness as a penance. If we “settle in,” it’s

to sit out the landing stage
Of our perpetual half-time.

Maybe the problem is we are trying too damned hard. Maybe we simply need to create space in our hearts and wait.

The fact is that in the end, it came on its own
With such ease, and through the tiniest of spaces.
I knew then the difference between choice and grace.
Outside, the rain continued on, and the people.
Inside, my coffee tasted just as bitter,
But I drank it in a different universe.

Perhaps every true god is a trickster like Raven, who

your bread, your bullets,
your riddles, the last
dreamy petal
fallen to the night table.
(“The Trouble with Ravens”)

I too remember star-gazing as a child:

Who can feel small in the lap of the galaxy?
(“At Seven”)

Until one day in my early teens I did, I felt our entire galaxy’s insignificance, and was terrified to realize that none of our verities, not one, mattered a hair. After that it began to dawn on me that

Want is a sluggard tongue,
seeking its greasy kingdom. It will tempt you full
to bursting.
(“Perfect Weight”)

One could do worse than seek the grace of an addict, who

will be granted provisions and unused prayers,
Not by the angels, but by those you most despise.
(“A Prayer for Reclamation”)

I’m home now. It’s poetry night at the shelter. Beautiful book in an ungainly package, thank you for this mirror into the soul.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.

4 Replies to “Goatfish Alphabet by Kristen McHenry”

  1. Dave, I loved the poems in this book ever since I first read the manuscript for the qarrtsiluni chapbook contest, where it was a finalist. I bought it when it was published, too, and was somewhat disappointed in the design and package, because these poems deserve better. But that doesn’t diminish how good they are, or how the strength of Kristin’s voice and language, or the fact that these are content-driven poems with a great deal to say. I hope there’s going to be a full-length book from her one of these days.

    1. Not only a finalist, but a runner-up. Yeah, I suppose I should have said that — but I hope no one reading these very personal reader-responses thinks I am trying to be impartial. Ditto on hoping for a full-length collection!

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