General Release from the Beginning of the World by Donna Spruijt-Metz


Review by Catherine Abbey Hodges

I can’t remember when I last read a book of poems that I’d call suspenseful. Donna Spruijt-Metz’s new poetry collection, General Release from the Beginning of the World is just (though far from only) that. The poems, in their withholdings and their revelations, accrue via entreaty, memory/re-membering, and a deep interiority: “Some things stay with you, even as they don’t. / They stay with you as they change within you,” begins the poem “Map of May-July 1956: Living Room with Death Notification.” In four poems spread throughout the book, each titled “Daughter and Mother, Amsterdam, Tram 4,” we meet a mother whose silence on the central event of the daughter/speaker’s life loosens, by tiny increments, until the truth explodes in a single line.

As spellbound as I am by the narrative arc of this haunting and beautiful book, you won’t hear the story from me. It’s the book’s, not mine, to tell. But there’s plenty else to say about the collection. Reading the poems feels like looking through a window into a mind in the process of relentless inquiry. The speaker arrives at knowledge bit by bit only to find that “[t]he punishment / for remembering is / another truth.” Thus a truth unearthed early in the collection, “And there it is—once I loved / and was abandoned” (from “God of Light and Deluge”), is not conclusion but another step in “the long march” of the first poem’s title.

That first poem, “I Need the Long March,” takes a wide-angle view of a family from a surrealist perspective. Think Chagall, but a gradient darker:

            When I was my grandmother’s mother, I knew

            she would be beautiful in the time of war

            so I set to knitting her

            a whole skein of swans

            in flawless V formation

            . . . . . . .

            and when my fear for her life was bigger

            than my love

            I released her to the steppes and flew

            above it all, above the war, grasslands

            snowfields, past the small horses

            and the gray wolves

The first line lets us know that inside the world of this poem, time as we know it doesn’t apply. And time is one obsession of the book: “[t]ime’s horses,” “time’s false swish and ripple,” time on visual display in the Grand Canyon’s layers, and, from “First We Become Flesh,”

            What enters us—what is bounty—what

            is threat—the answer is wrapped in time

            —our construct—how we live or die by it

            crave the imagined order of it . . . .

That “imagined order” harkens back to “Map of May-July 1956: Living Room with Death Notification.” There, the speaker recounts drawing a map that includes herself as a child:

            At six years old I lived alone

            on this carpet. I built games

            around the shapes, the uneven squares of color,

            the lines that one could or could not step on,

            the punishments I made up for myself, creating

            a kind of order.

What she did at six, “creating a kind of order” for herself, she reenacts decades later by means of the poems in this book.

Hers is a solitary endeavor, and it isn’t. In “God in Amsterdam,” the speaker says, “Finally / someone I can’t drink under the table.” (I hear relief, even something of an exultant tone.) Here and throughout the collection, she addresses God as “YOU”:

            YOU pour another,

            we are jolly, YOU

            answer all my questions . . . .

But this is only the second poem in the book, and God makes sure the speaker is “too drunk / to remember / [the] answers.” By the book’s final poem, the answers are no longer the point. En route are many poems that respond to or riff on material from the Psalms. They’re identified as such by “after Psalm _____, verses ______” beneath the titles, and like the Psalms they range between entreaty, complaint, lament, awe, and epiphany. The ultimate epiphany: more than answers, it’s this ongoing conversation, the deepening intimacy along with the insatiable longing for it, that matters.

The focus on intimacy is particularly notable given that the opposite—protracted  silence and ruptured relationships—is at the heart of the story I’ve instructed myself not to spoil for you. Maybe, though, I can say this much. You already know there’s an unforthcoming mother. Add to that the title “For My Next Trick, I Will Imagine His Death.” Now add grainy images of newspaper clippings, photographs, and legal documents incorporated into poems. We have to squint, or grab a stronger pair of reading glasses, to bring the images into focus; I imagine Spruijt-Metz working at bringing the material into mental, emotional, and psychological focus for herself both through writing the poems and in order to write them.

By the end of the collection, Spruijt-Metz has arrived at a devastating clarity on the questions the book pursues. Equally important, the knowledge has not destroyed her; quite the opposite, in fact. She’s reached this place by dint of the “long march” of her meticulously crafted, mysterious, insistent poems paired with a kind of surrender to the process, as suggested by the arc of the poems and expressed in the final two stanzas of “Tunnel” (after Psalm 70):

            YOU, all shadow and search

            grown full

            on inconsistent love, please

            reel me through, catch me

            on the other side

            with your hidden hands.

The long march, the surrender to process: the final, gratifying irony is the way this deeply personal collection of poems captures the essence of the creative process, whoever the maker, whatever the medium.