Spilling the Tea
(or a book review)
Donna Vorreyer's to everything there is (Sundress Publications, 2020) Reviewed by Brendan Walsh
In an MFA workshop in 2013, my professor Jeff Mock asked my class to read Li-Young Lee’s poem, “In the City in Which I Love You,” and it immediately became one of my favorites. Jeff pointed out multiple places in the poem that simply “wouldn’t work” with a lesser poet: sentimentality, obscurity, grandeur! Oh no! That’s the thing about great poetry, though. It doesn’t follow the hard-and-fast poetic "rules", because emotions, grief, death, and life do not abide by any strict rules other than the absolute laws of nature. Donna Vorreyer has that same adept hand that makes Li-Young Lee so confounding and gorgeous, and her collection, to everything there is, showcases a poet unafraid of the heavy emotionality that makes our lives so rich and foolish, so complex and obvious and lonely.
Much of the collection is a catalogue of grief. The loss of a mother and, soon after, a father, consumes and hypnotizes the speaker. As the mother is fading, Vorreyer can only “wish for some wreckage / to emerge from the whirlpool, / for something to buoy me in my grief.” No buoy exists, however, but the “wreckage” remains, and we see grief as a kind of wreckage of spirit. It is all-encompassing.
In the cento, “Last Night in the Hospice Center,” which uses lines from Tracy K. Smith, Vorreyer contends with the “everything” that is mortality and loss by considering interconnectedness, the concept at the heart of all major religions, and the structuring of the universe that could be described
as God. The speaker watches her mother’s body fade, yet acknowledges that “the body is what / we lean toward--a door opening,” and therefore death cannot be the totality we imagine it to be.
Vorreyer concludes the poem with an astonishing realization: “Everything / that ever was still is somewhere. Everything / that disappears disappears as if returning.” I like to think so, and I have to believe this poem’s grappling makes sense of our transition to another thing, not encumbered by the flesh.
This collection captures the absurdity of existence as well. The cento, “During,” which uses lines from Ada Limón, applies a skillful voice to the madness of our lives, that we must watch the people whom we love die, and then die ourselves. Still, somehow, we live as if this fact is far away or inapplicable. She asks the question, answers it, and leaves us with more raw meat to chew and half-digest:
What do we do with grief? Lug it. Yes, and I knew
that I’d lose her forever, death’s warm breath
at the mouth. Confession: I did not want to know
that this war was winless, a sort of holding on
in order to escape. How masterful and mad is hope.
Hope is mad and masterful, and yet it must be the thing that allows us to “lug” grief somewhere a bit warmer. Perhaps a place with love, warm beds, food, and sex.
Vorreyer doesn’t lose sight of this, as this collection begins and ends with poems about a love so human and sincere. A cozy love, it is. The kind we’re all hoping for, I think. The final piece ends on love, which must be the “buoy” the speaker longs for. In “Aubade After a Dream of Fox and Pines,” love is framed as food and air, something beyond choice and thought. Vorreyer begins with a quaint metaphor: “We fit together, planked fence against / a forest.” There is a perceived opposition to this relationship, and yet it works. One offsets the other, and each gives what the other lacks. But this relationship was not created as some detailed construction of mutual understanding. It is a necessity:
I have made a fine choice, I think,
nuzzling the soft hairs at the back
of your neck. How brazen to say
that love is a choice.
The sentiment-lovers (like me) feel that final line. Anyone who has ever felt a love so deep knows this is the truth of our existence. We love stupidly and recklessly, think Nicolas Cage’s great monologue in Moonstruck. There’s no mathematical logic here, but there is a great universal logic. Love is not a choice, just as the appreciation of great art isn’t a logical decision that we make. Stuff doesn’t always, or often, make sense, and yet there it is. Deal with it. Extract as much beauty as you can.
to everything there is is too much of everything, and that’s what makes it so incredible. Sometimes it shouldn’t work, but it really really does. Too much grief, love, passion, and torment. Goddamnit, life is too much. Vorreyer gets that, examines it, and teaches us to move forward in spite of it.
Brendan Walsh has lived and taught in South Korea, Laos, and South Florida. His work appears in Rattle, Glass Poetry, Indianapolis Review, American Literary Review, and other journals. He is the winner of America Magazine's 2020 Foley Poetry Prize, and the author of five collections, including Buddha vs. Bonobo (Sutra Press), and fort lauderdale (Grey Book Press). His chapbook concussion fragment, winner of the 2021 Elsewhere Chapbook Prize, is forthcoming from Elsewhere Press. He’s online at www.brendanwalshpoetry.com.