Spilling the Tea
(or a book review)
Unknowable Things (Roadside Press, 2022); Reviewed by Donna Vorreyer
If you expect to scan Kerry Trautman’s table of contents for Unknowable Things and get an overall sense of the depth of the collection, you might struggle. Short titles, almost a third of them single words, give very few hints—Drops. Shell. Suction. Pear. Stray. Earlier. Abstract. Staying. Scrap. Gone. This is not a criticism. It is a testament to the way Trautman infuses ordinary language with significance.
Filled with the blunt language of conversing with a friend, the collection builds layers of meaning as it unfolds. For example, in an early poem “Eggs Fried by a Friend’s Father” the speaker is disgusted by toast dipped in runny yolks until “I grimaced, mimicked/the crunch and flow//sunrise, thunder,/a goldfinch flock alighting/backdropped by lightning,/a gold silk ball gown washed out to sea.” The poem ends on the short declaration, “It would be ok.” Why is it not okay now? the reader wonders. Is there a reason it’s a friend’s father making the breakfast? Deceptively simple, the poem resonates differently after later poems which hint at a distant relationship with and loss of the speaker’s own father and a disordered view of the body and food as in the poem “Store-Bought Cookies.” Here the speaker curses a man as false, unsure, and turns to the titular dependable comfort: “She knew how to slit open the wrapping,/knew how many would satisfy,/how many would make her feel ill,/how they felt inside her—/the same each/and every time.”
Discomfort is a theme throughout—with appearance, with expectation, with the unstable and unpredictable nature of relationships as a daughter, a friend, a partner, and a parent. Discomfort with all of the unknowable things of the book’s title. In the poem that references the title, “When Drinking Alone, the Mind Ponders Unknowable Things,” which is placed in the dead center of the collection, Trautman braids all of these threads together all she lists many things that are unknowable, using the strategy of starting with naming which seems to be unimportant in order to lead to the thing that doesn’t want to be discussed:
The exact proportion of water to sand for castling,
not sprinkling away to nothings,
not landsliding to shapeless sludge.
My last words to my father.
His to me.
Even last-ish words might suffice.
There must have been a phone call.
Is Mom home?
A collage rather than a straight line, the collection bounces from topic to topic so the reader is sometimes unsure of where to land in the narrative. Poems that appear consecutively at first may not seem to be related, but end up being perfectly juxtaposed. In the prose poem “December 1st, and You’re Away,” the speaker describes going into the attic to bring down the Christmas decorations, but ends with a simple act of leaving her cell phone at the base of the ladder “in case I should fall.” This is followed by the lyric and short-lined poem “To My Husband’s Best Friend” which ponders the feeling that she could be replaced by another woman, but that the friend could not be replaced in her husband’s heart. It ends on the surprising note that, if the husband were to die, the two of them should make love, “our griefs adhered/to mold a bright sphere//of him from our scant/crescents of remaining light.” Both poems are consumed with the idea of either the speaker or the partner being gone, the ephemeral nature of the time we have together in a life.
The collection requires a little work on the reader’s part to see the whole, the related scope of the themes, but this structure is purposeful and admirable. It mimics the arbitrary and lovely moments of a life, where one never knows if a new day will bring domestic comfort as in “October Night”
everything she had, she needed—
couch, afghan, books
or bring the disorienting chaos of grief as in “Dear Abby,”—”
What should I take—having permission to
dig from my dead friend’s garden?
If I try the tall ironweed,
I will cry if my winds blow it over.
If milkweed, and if monarchs come,
in that way she would hover near.
Trautman’s poems in Unknowable Things may be populated with ordinary moments and plain language, but their impact is anything but ordinary and plain. We are presented with the agony, the ecstasy, and all the honest confusion and boredom of a life rendered in a box of jigsaw pieces that, when placed together, paint a picture both relatable and uniquely tender.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications. She also curates and hosts A Hundred Pitchers of Honey, a Zoom-based reading series. Click here to visit Donna online.