by Joy Gaines-Friedler
Reviewed by Noah Stetzer
Iwas sure there was some kind of myth or folktale I could mine for metaphors about birds. Don’t birds signal a thing? Aren’t they harbingers? But after some cursory Internet-ing I couldn’t find what I thought I’d find. Maybe birds only call out to me at an archetypical level.There are a lot of birds in Joy Gaines-Friedler’s latest book of poems: Capture Theory; from the chickadee in the first poem “Touch,” to the cormorant in the closing poem, “Over the Rainbow.” So many birds in fact that I can’t stop thinking about them. And when I consider birds and Gaines-Friedler’s book I’m reminded of something called the Evening Chorus. Similar but not as energetic as the Sunrise Chorus—and fairly easy to imagine—the Evening Chorus coincides with that transitional time of day when birds go about their business of eating and finding mates and calling out the news of the day. Capture Theory sounds to me like that melodious kind of news.
Gaines-Friedler’s poems come out of a transitional time. Early in the collection we are there as the speaker watches her mother after the death of her father (“Counting Change”). And then, throughout, the poet recounts the mother’s decline in poems like: “Dementia” and “Lack of Memory Floor.” And so the collection creates a kind of liminal space full of grief and also a sad anticipation. Maybe the same way the light changes almost melancholic at the end of the day is weirdly juxtaposed by the full-throated call of birds: finches, chickadees, cormorants, herons, night birds. Gaines-Friedler’s poems capture a complicated mood of something leaving but also something coming; something darker but with a promised light that follows. Gloaming.
This twilit book zeroes in on the peculiar transition that occurs when the child becomes the parent: the voice in poems taking on the role of caregiver to the aging mother (“Trying to Figure out My Mother’s Medicare Plan”). This experience seems to find its voice in the poems connected to the collection’s title: Capture Theory. In these poems, the speaker contends with herself in relation to the mother: “I can’t explain why I threw her letter out” and “Forgiveness, forgive me.” But it’s in “Teaching Young Adults ‘At Risk’” that the poet reveals Capture Theory’s center. It is in this poem that we are instructed about various ideas of how the moon came to circle the earth. It is difficult not to hear various ways to describe the changing relationship between a parent and child: “Impact Theory… an off-center collision”; “Fission Theory… once a part of us. It broke away.”; and “Capture Theory… the moon formed elsewhere.” Gaines-Friedler deftly explores the ways the moon might have come to be paired with the earth in the same way that a child and a parent can move through various kinds of connections—bodies circling bodies.
Into this liminal space—with shifting light: “what the sky had been an hour ago,” flitting birds: “criss-crossing a random, unregulated plan,” the moon appearing: “Dean Martin singing, That’s Amore”—Gaines-Friedler inserts the indisputable solidity of the human body. Again and again the human body itself returns in poems as a kind of bedrock. Among the poems where a speaker changes places with her parent, where a child works to decipher the code between herself and her mother, there is a poet awake inside a body, remembering. Even in its mortality the body “finds a way to breathe.” Here, I am thinking of poems like: the AIDS elegy “When the World Converted to Acronyms”; the pragmatic “Refusing to Ride the Creator” where the speaker avoids a rollercoaster’s risk with, “I’m not brave. Not about this”; and where the speaker’s determination is revealed in “Home Repair” with “pantry door keeps falling off its hinges. I repair it. I’ll repair it again.” The body remembered and the body resolute.
I think I’m slightly misremembering the Norse legend of the two ravens: Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory. It was said in legends that they flew the world and returned to report back news to Odin. My faintly remembered bird myth doesn’t have the weight of Norse mythology. The mythic birds I’m thinking of carried news but also appeared at crucial times, at shifting moments. Maybe birds have so often been shown as heralds that I can’t help but read them this way in Joy Gaines-Friedler’s new collection. The poems in Capture Theory read like messages sent from between stations—a voice making its way from one point in a life to the next. These are remembrances and work done to put affairs in order along with poems of delight and discovery. “On your way about your life, at the mailbox or a stop light, your body remembers” one poem announces; in another, “We’ve lived through the dying.” I look forward to what comes next.
Noah Stetzer is the author of Because I Can See Needing a Knife, a collection of poems published in 2016 by Red Bird Chapbooks. His work has received the 2015 Christopher Hewitt Award for Poetry and the 39th New Millennium Award for Poetry. Noah’s poems have appeared in the New England Review, Nimrod International Journal of Prose & Poetry, Green Mountains Review, and Bellevue Literary Review. He is a 2014 Fellow from the Lambda Literary Retreat and a current work-study scholar at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Noah now lives in Kansas City and can be found online at www.noahstetzer.com.