Review by Catherine Abbey Hodges
One morning when my daughter was twelve, I became aware of her studying me. After a few moments, she said, “I wonder what it’s like to be you.” I thought about this as I was reading Sonia Greenfield’s ravishing new poetry collection, All Possible Histories, fresh off the press from Riot in Your Throat. Many of the poems wonder, in nimble, resonant ways, what it would be like to be somebody else. Together they suggest the perspective expressed in the mid-book epigraph from Kazuo Ishiguro, “There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one,” and tease out the implications of this idea.
The cover photo of empty swings on a vacant, mist-shrouded playground and five titles on the table of contents that include the word “ghost” portend a book steeped in loss, a haunting. It turns out to be a gorgeous, nuanced haunting achieved through poems ranging from harrowing and heartbreaking to whimsical, sly, and ironic. They take up events both distant and intimate, converse with and critique pop culture, and in an impressive variety of ways insist, as in the opening lines of “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn,” “You think you know the story / but you don’t.” Together the poems make a faceted argument about the uses of imagination and the nature and scope of our responsibility to one another.
The first five poems map much of the book’s territory and tonal range without spilling all the beans. “Tōhoku Ghosts” opens the collection with a dreamlike, surrealist first-person rendering of the dead children of Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami:
[W]e pull coins
for the meters from our drowned mouths
& pay for how we flicker at the edge
of water, how we push our mothers’
hair back with the wind of our fingers,
Although the disaster may be distant in time and place, with the surrealism creating a further kind of distance, the poem also features the familiar subject of mothers and children that will thread through the book and is at the heart of the next poem, “Japanese Aquarium Urges Public to Video-chat Eels Who Are Forgetting Humans Exist” (a May 1st 2020 headline from The Guardian).
The voice in the eel poem couldn’t be more different than that of the first poem. “hey eels,” this one begins, and returns to the direct address five times. The entirely unpunctuated poem takes up Covid and its impacts on humans and wildlife, introduces the subject-thread of neurodiversity, and features a particular mother-child relationship, that between speaker and son.
Each of the next three poems suggests the idea expressed by Ishiguro’s epigraph. “Natatorium” does this through a reference to reports of a drowned boy in a poem that places speaker and son at a swimming lesson where the child “performs his uncoordinated / nondrowning.” “Ghost Ship,” a meditation on the deadly Oakland warehouse fire, begins, “I have been that young, that electrified / by the bohemian scene of a city . . . ,” and acknowledges “any space we inhabit / can become a ghost ship.” It could have been me, in other words.
The fifth poem takes a different approach. “To the Five Thousand YouTube Viewers Who Gave the Cancer Survivor a Thumbs Down” is composed entirely of questions, ranging from “Was it the way cancer made her gangly / as some are when their bodies just want to be birds?” and “What is it about / the anonymity of your phone . . . that compelled you to say no / to a song about hope?” to “Who hurt you, stranger?” and “How are you lonely?” The poem is simultaneously an indictment and an acknowledgement that cruelty is often rooted in deep wounds.
This is not to say that heinous acts meet with resigned acceptance in the collection. “Why I Won’t Use the Term,” the first poem in the book’s second section, offers a grizzly “could have been me/us” scenario from World War II Vienna. The point of view is that of a mother pleading with Dr. Asperger as he “peers into [her child’s] face” and passes judgment. The poem’s final excruciating stanza:
In his folder it’s written
epilepsy too & one quarter
Jew. Asperger only
groomed his chosen few.
To my mind, “Across the Membrane” is the central poem of the collection, and not only because it contains the book’s title. It begins with quantum theory’s idea of the parallel worlds “we sometimes press against”: “Numbers / tell physicists all possible histories / & futures are real.” Then the poem makes a smart, gratifying move as it comments on the prescience of poetry:
To think math
can have such imagination, but our own
Frost proffered the Many Interacting World
hypothesis before theorists.
After considering what Frost himself might have encountered “across the membrane” in the way of fewer personal tragedies, the poem concludes, “In all multiple / macrocosms we have promises to keep / & miles to go before any self sleeps.”
Those promises we must keep, those miles ahead before “any self” can sleep—together, the poems urge that they are related to growing our capacity for empathy and compassion through actively imagining what it would be like to be inside another person’s life. True, “[a] poem can’t open a can / for you” (from “Useless Bay”), but All Possible Histories reminds us, through multiple lenses and without redundancy, of what poems can do, and that it’s considerable.
And if I wouldn’t have chosen “They Say Dropping Like Flies” as the final poem in the book, it’s only because I wouldn’t have had the guts or the faith to end so eloquent and important an argument with
kept short & sweet: make love
while flying & lay eggs
Me, I’d have shopped around for a latch or a nail. Greenfield went with the wing of a fly, and it’s perfect.