A review by Rosemary D. Cox.
Grief is a strange beast. Psychologists say that there are five stages to grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But no two people deal with loss in exactly the same way, which is one reason why Priscilla Long’s Crossing Over: Poems is so remarkable because in writing out her grief over her sister’s suicide, her emotions universally resonate with the reader. Through interlocking themes and images, she articulates what it means to come to terms with the past in order to move forward into the future.
The first poem in the collection, “Sister Ghost,” sets in motion a series of images that intertwine throughout the volume: the static beauty of photographs, memories and stories from youth, art, death, stones, suicide, despair, her sister Susanne, and the one dominant feature of the collection, bridges. Anyone who has visited the Pacific Northwest knows that bridges are ever-present in the physical landscape; Long, a resident of Seattle, makes them part of her poetic landscape, with all their literal rust and towers where “falcons roost” then “swoop and dive, defy / geometries of rivet and steel” (“Memory’s Load” lines 17, 18-19). She names these bridges—for example, the Eleventh Street Bridge built in 1913 and renamed Murray Morgan Bridge in 1997, the Fremont Bridge (built 1917), and its companion bridge the Aurora (built 1932), and the floating pontoon bridge built in 1961 to span the Hood Canal. She weaves their history into her narrative, sometimes with facts, sometimes with musings. In “Why the Fremont Bridge and the Aurora Bridge Don’t Speak” she flatly claims, “The Aurora Bridge is the jumper’s / bridge. Beauty debated and hated” (15-16), while in another poem about the same bridge (“High Road Home”) she ponders, “Do bridges dream their suicides? / Bodies like birds, brief, / a bright flash, then gone” (1-3). The Aurora is personified: “The bridge trembles / over still waters that split / spirit from falling flesh” (4-6). But whatever perspective Long employs, bridges emerge as the central metaphor for the book: “crossing over.” Her epigraphs reinforce that metaphor. The book opens with a quote from Theodore Roethke: “The self must be a bridge, not a pit,” a sentiment echoed in a poem called “Visitations” where the epigraph is from the last sentence of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, / and the bridge is love.”
“Visitations” is, arguably, the most powerful poem in the collection. Built around the refrain “The dead have nothing new to say,” Long reminisces about three women who made their mark on her life: her sister Susanne, her Grandma Henry, and her girlhood friend Gay. While the initial pain for their loss has long passed—“We seldom cry for them now” (27)—Long’s grief has metamorphosed into the memories that become a living presence in her consciousness. Of Susanne, Long maintains, “Her death at forty / is thirty years old. / Still, she loves my poems. / Still, she’ll walk the China Wall” (7-10). Gay is eternally young: “I’m sixty. She’s still / sixteen. Slim, she wades on river stones. / We splash and toss our seaweed hair. / We walk the dusty road” (20-23). Long states, “They do not age, / but their deaths are aging” (25-26), and “Still, on odd, solitary evenings / they come to call. / They visit, but they have lost / the art of conversation” (28-31). Grief never vanishes—it transforms.
Transformation describes another dimension of Long’s poems, particularly her technique. In “Traffic,” Long cleverly juxtaposes natural and human environments: “Blackberries tangle with tires” (10) and “Cottonwoods drop condoms / beside the blue lake” (14-15). In this new world of trash and beauty, nature has the last word: “Bindweed lets down its vine hair / into broken brown glass, and, yes, / bitter dock cracks the asphalt” (16-18). In another poem, “Calder,” inspired by the work of American sculptor Alexander Calder, alliterating words recreate the experience of watching one of the mobiles he invented: it is a “canticle to cosmic / convolution, cantilevered / to the curve of space-time” (4-6). The playfulness of this poem, however, gives way to a more somber transfiguration in “Decomposition” where the words of the poem erode and decay, as all beings transform from flesh to dust: “a dead crow / shrinks to crow feather, / to feather and bone, / to two brown leaves” (10-13).
Long’s meditations are elegiac, but they also celebrate hope—“I drink to the worlds beyond” (11) she announces in “Journey,” the last poem of the volume. With this gesture she toasts her own five stages of grief: she acknowledges her debt to the past, reaffirms love and life, burns her bridges, and moves on.
Crossing Over: Poems is now on sale for $13.46 from the University of New Mexico Press.