A Review of Mike James’s Elegy in Reverse
By J. Andrew Goodman
Elegy in Reverse is a tense poetry collection exploring how loss and absence manifest. Family, friends, lovers, talents, and faith are shadows made measurable by experience and reverence in Mike James’s eighth collection, released by Aldrich Press earlier this year. James’s verse reminds us that what we hold dear is perishable and that words are often not enough to hold these things accountable for leaving. His poetry is plainspoken but evocative, fully rendering the familiarity of longing and grief for that which has a propensity toward leaving. Amid such an exodus, James captivates readers with his rapturous voice.
The characters of James’s past are made tangible by his written memory. In the early pages of his collection, readers are introduced to his mother and his alcoholic father; the latter is deceased and the former presumably so. In “Jailbird,” his father invents a dance, “the prison shuffle,” that the son enjoys, but his mother refuses to join:
when i was with your father
i had enough dancing
to do me
until cows or jesus
when she said that
as if she were saying it
for the first time
In economic verse, James details the family situation of his childhood: His father goes or returns to prison. His mother hopes to prevent her son from making similar choices. She makes light of her husband’s antics, yet reveals in doses the continuity of the past, her worry refreshed.
His mother appears sparingly throughout the collection, despite James’s apparent fondness of her, while his father returns frequently. The collection contains a number of heartbreaking poems about his father’s alcoholism, which “cost him a sense of direction,” ultimately turning him away from his family. The son is left only with his memory, piecemeal and bitter. James seems to believe he has inherited such transience. Or, possibly, he recognizes this as a feature of human nature, the human condition. He expresses “a sad anger” toward most loss or abandonment, writing in a poem later in the collection that “an old friend says leaving is contagious.” This sets a precedent for the remainder of the book.
Despite his ability to make good use of them, James recognizes that words often escape or fail us as well. In “Message at Babel,” James alludes to the biblical account of God confounding the human language. As part of a short series of poems within the collection that questions the necessity of disparity in faith, James explores through a lens of mourning what it means that Eve was possibly judged “before she even chewed,” that Job’s wife was silenced by her children’s “faces / so stiff in death.”
Still, James shows us clearly that language and voice help diffuse the power of death and grief. Our memories become stories, become physical. “I don’t know what to make / of the language / of grace” James writes in a poem about refusing to offer a prayer before a meal with his wife. The litany and ritual of biblical language are not as significant or endearing to him as experience itself:
those words / don’t cling to me / the way a blanket does / on mid-winter / mornings / / or the way we cling / to one another / at night / as we swim / across the ocean of our bodies / past the edge of our wants / / the night sky full of stars / mariners used / for passage/ their breath filling sails / with a word / that can be a taunt / a promise / or something close to grace / / home
James’s refusal isn’t a rejection of faith, but of its language, poor in its appraisal of our desires and necessities. He suggests silence is its own grace in “However Bright the Sun” and “Wild Apples.” In labor, we work through our grief and unpleasantness. We forget our losses, even though their accumulation manifests into a shadow, “some days . . . into a taste.”
The dichotomy of what is unreal as it exists in reality is essential to James’s collection. He is visited by his father’s ghost, and they converse. Eden’s inhabitants are capricious, envious of Eve’s taste. James even defines an elegy as “a love poem to an abstraction / once touched.” It seems, then, that with poetry James is enabled to seek the abstraction through language, to define absence by its bounty. The way the monk in “The Monk’s Dream” seeks God’s face during sleep or contemplation but can think only of hawk’s feathers and an empty bowl is how we, with James, seek the unreal through the limitations of the real.
More than a reconciliation of grief, Elegy in Reverse is a love poem to language and the surprising result of what happens when we’re able to say the right thing. Even when describing that which is fleeting, Mike James’s voice is nascent, emerging. He is never at a loss for words.
Mike James, Elegy in Reverse. Aldrich Press, 2014: $16.00
J. Andrew Goodman is a graduate of Murray State University’s MFA program and an intern for the independent literary publisher, White Pine Press. He currently lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky.