The River Won’t Hold You
by Karin Gottshall
The Ohio State University Press, December 2014
Paperback or e-book: $16.95
Review by Camille Meyers
An intimate and haunting collection of poetry, The River Won’t Hold You by Karin Gottshall explores the human experience of loneliness and connection with others. She writes in a quiet way, folding the reader in a warm blanket of words. From “Parochial:” “Was I a person who would / one day reach forty: a question I sometimes asked / the oven. Putting on my underwear every morning / (whales harpooned for the bones against the bones / of my great-grandmother, her own soft and lonely mother).” With such precise imagery and clarity of voice, it is no wonder that Gottshall’s second book won the 2013 The Journal Award in Poetry from The Ohio State University Press.
The opening poem “Forecast” sets the theme of the collection. A “sham fortune-teller sat / turning over cards, saying you will be lonely—” to the speaker who thinks “loneliness / is nothing more than a cotton slip // and uncombed hair” and invites it to begin. With this boldness, and perhaps naiveté, the reader enters the first section, stepping onto a path of poems winding through childhood and growing into womanhood. Gottshall avoids slipping into nostalgia or sugar coating youth. Instead her poems reflect growing pains, such as “Lesson,”
that tender purchase of dart in flesh
allowing him to reel her bleating back
along a taut line of animal pain
she couldn’t unfasten from—at some
point along that axis humming casual
violence (and his boy heat and her blood
just beginning to bubble under the barb),
a false idea she had about this world
and her position in it was corrected.
Often, a line break leads to a surprising turn adding layers of meaning. The poem “Translation” starts: “If I were tasked with inventing a language, / I would coin a term for the feeling of being called / by a different woman’s name. There’s another word / I wish existed, for the realization that it doesn’t / matter.” With this deftness of language, she gently writes about loneliness avoiding self-pity, depression, or glorification. This theme carries on through the second section even when the speaker is surrounded by other people or in the arms of a lover. A sense of seeking companionship or an understanding of self seeps into the poems, such as “More Lies,”
I like a place that’s lit by lamps. I like a place
where you can hear people talk about small things,
like the difference between azure and cerulean,
and the price of tulips. It’s going down. I watched
someone who could be my sister walk in, shaking the rain
from her hair. I thought, even now florists are filling
their coolers with tulips, five dollars a bundle. All over
the city there are sisters. Any one of them could be mine.
Ghosts dance in the margins of the book’s third section with poems like “Ghost Story,” “Tell your phone to stop calling me,” and “Afterlife.” Hints of death pepper the entire book, but the collection ends with an acceptance of mortality and that long ago forecasted loneliness. While most of Gottshall’s poetry is narrated in first person, “Listening to the Dead” makes a small departure:
“I’ve come unstitched, says the rabbit in the orchard, belly
torn open by dogs. Maggots have come to sew me back
into earth. All around, the softening apples
drop when the wind blows and at night deer approach
and lower their slender necks to eat.
Gottshall leaves the reader with haunting imagery, like showing tenderness to a shot buck in “Operative,” or stepping into a display of taxidermy wolves renewed to life in “Diorama,” “Or you step up, / into that stage-prop forest, under the colored arch // of the long-ago sky, and walk at last into your actual life.” The River Won’t Hold You takes that bold step, and with a clear voice and honest eyes, walks into the reader’s life.