Rich Interiors: A Review of Ona Gritz’s Geode
Much like geodes themselves, the poems in Ona Gritz’s first full-length collection, Geode, are deceptively plain at first glance. However, Gritz’s subtle observations reveal depths of emotional resonance. With casual yet muscular language, Gritz’s poetry sets readers’ expectations of quiet moments and then upends them with a surprise turn of phrase or a devastating event. Composed of three major sections that follow a woman’s life chronologically from girlhood to adulthood, the book ranges thematically from growing up with hemiplegia, to marriage and divorce, to finding new love. Motherhood dominates the second half of the book. Gritz’s teenage son, Ethan, is the subject of many of these poems, several of which have also graced the Literary Mama Poetry pages. Gritz’s name may also be familiar to readers from her column “Doing It Differently.” In her writing, Gritz shares moments intimately, as if over a cup of coffee, then stuns the reader with unexpected language and crystalline insight.
Throughout her book, Gritz often undersells a moment to allow the reader to experience its impact fully. For example, in “Edvard Munch’s Puberty, Mine,” a poem near the book’s beginning, a young girl recognizes herself in a famous painting: “I know the slump of those small shoulders / from the inside out. Eyes wide.” Gritz keeps the language calm and matter-of-fact, increasing the impact of the child’s feelings of alienation and frustration as she “gave [herself] / to the expert prodding of doctors” who want to “move a muscle in my ankle / from front to back, elongate a heel too / stubborn to stretch on its own.” As her parents discuss whether she’ll still limp after her operation, the girl thinks to herself:
I want my clothes back, I might have said.
Meanwhile, words poured over and around me
(Extensor, Palsy, She, Her…)
like I was a picture hanging on the wall.
Everyone remains calm in this scene. The poem’s structure is orderly and neat, six stanzas of three lines each, except for this final stanza. The girl seems distanced from her body, her parents, and her doctors, yet through italics and a single extra line at the end of the poem, Gritz invokes the turmoil of Munch’s The Scream as what the girl really feels, but suppresses.
Gritz continues to explore themes of solitude and alienation as the book’s girl grows older. In the poem “1971, Winter in Queens,” a girl notices how “Pigeon-colored slush piles line the road” and that “My father’s knuckles look burnt” when the neon lights of strip malls shine on them. She states, “At nine, / I know I won’t find beauty on tired / Mott Avenue.” But Gritz performs sleight-of-hand in the final lines. She describes not only a physical barrenness in the landscape, but also an emotional one:
No saints on the sagging
front porches, no slender whitewashed
birch trees to light the forest of such nights.
This young girl experiences a complete lack of redemption in her surroundings. In contrast, an almost mythical snowy woods resides in the child’s imagination, although Gritz doesn’t reference Robert Frost directly. As in many of Gritz’s poems, the simplicity of the poem’s language emphasizes the depth of the subject’s loneliness, but the vivid imagery hints at a rich interior life. Gritz finds beautiful ways to describe ugliness, suggesting that it’s always worthwhile to look below the surface.
Later in the book, as the girl grows into a young woman, the poems continue to explore the experience of an individual in isolation, revealing the unexpected in the everyday. In “Nighttime in the Country of New Mothers,” Gritz captures the loneliness of sleepless nights with an infant, “the way fear and love are indistinguishable / as together they govern the lamplit rooms.” Described from a distance, Gritz creates an entire country of mothers awake with their newborns:
Cries rising from windows are mostly the babies,
but, rocking and nursing, some mothers weep too.
We were merely girls before crossing this border,
our empty arms impossibly light.
In this poem, Gritz encapsulates a paradox of new motherhood as an isolating rite of passage unique to each woman, yet shared in common with similarly burdened mothers. From the isolation of childhood illness to the loneliness of new motherhood, Gritz uses solitude as an opportunity to capture moments that otherwise pass by unnoticed and finds gems of insight.
Bravely, Gritz also examines a woman’s less-than-shining moments. As her own child grows from infanthood through childhood, Gritz describes the changes a mother experiences. In “The Impatient Mother,” a mother refers to an angry version of herself as “she,” as if someone else has taken possession of her body:
…she will not be calmed. You’re not trying,
she accuses, barks think!, then marches to the sink
to wash dishes, clattering them onto the rack
to show what accomplishment sounds like.
Gritz creates an interesting dichotomy. The mother who is impatient or angry is considered a completely different person than the “real” mother:
But when she turns to him again his shoulders
are shaking, his face wet. This is what it takes
for her to leave us alone.
Most mothers would probably recognize this struggle between frustration toward their children, the need to nurture them, and guilt incurred from being a source of pain. Gritz subtly suggests that when a mother loses her temper, she violates the idealized version of motherhood to the point that she becomes someone else. In this poem, there isn’t room for anger and lovingness in the same person, an intriguing commentary on the limited meaning of “motherly.”
Gritz compares versions of her son in “The Muse Gets Angry Before Leaving for School.” Her adolescent son gives her the silent treatment because “I’m ruining my son’s life by making him wear a jacket.” Gritz’s use of humor underscores what parents of adolescents understand: what’s trivial to a parent is momentous to the child. Her son’s stubborn silence causes a recollection of another “image of stillness” in the same poem:
Back in the birth room,
through a mirror, I saw his face seconds before
his body. His expression: Calm as milk in its cup.
In its own cup, my tea grows cold.
Gritz skillfully links two transitional moments in her son’s life—entering the world as a newborn, then as an adult—and her passive observance of both, suggesting that even a child’s mother has less impact on a child’s life than she might assume.
Throughout Geode, quotidian details open into richly complex metaphors, much like the seemingly simple rock from which this book takes its title. As the book progresses, poems catalog moments in a woman’s journey from daughter to mother, from lonely child to a woman who finds love, partnership, and family. Gritz’s voice, like her poems, remains steady, clear, and straightforward, even as it explores complicated emotional terrain. Accessible and engaging, these poems reveal themselves in layers, meriting repeated readings. As a whole, the book exposes the luminosity that resides within daily experience.