Review of Katherine Gekker's In Search of Warm Breathing Things
Katherine Gekker’s collection, In Search of Warm Living Things from Glass Lyre Press is an elegiac sweeping look at life in the middle of chaos and entropy. While exploring the emotional landscapes of being a caretaker of an aging and dying parent and of being a partner in a collapsing alcohol-sodden marriage, Gekker seeks order, control, and catharsis. Through the emotional gauntlet, Gekker wrangles poems that not only process pain and grief, but temper it, transform it into an angry beauty.
Broken into four sections, Gekker’s primary poesy is elegy, though there are a few lyrics and “odes” or celebratory poems sprinkled throughout, Gekker walks around an emotional equivalent of a wasteland. Addiction and mental health are direct roadblocks in the speaker’s path; the learned behaviors taken on by the non-addictive partner offer no comfort, no guidance in a relationship that has become a kind of unending maze of woe, for everyone. Much of Breathing Things finds the speaker angry, fighting bitterness, in search of peace.
The opening poems, “Past Tense” and “Time Will Tell” frame the collection’s exigency, loss of a loved one, in this case through death, not addiction. “You begin to speak to me/in the past tense--” she begins, “As if I am the one leaving....Beneath cryptomeria, a lone cypress,/ we sow your ashes.../They gleam against dark earth./ Our eyelashes grow silver.../This is who I was--a girl in the rain at night.” In “Time Will Tell” the speaker waits through a hurricane while a loved one sits in pain. Nature’s violence outside “trunks jerk”, “boughs snap” and mirrors the internal violence of a dying parents’ final hours, an unseen havoc as organs fail and flesh falters. Gekker lays out the narrative of her mother’ death in measured poetic doses, mimicking the grieving process where time warps, as consciousness is transformed, enlarged with memory, and the ever present present. Gekker moves the reader through memories that refract the whole of the relationship, and sometimes the anger cuts, especially as Gekker addresses a failing marriage.
“The World Trembles, The World Masquerades” ripples with danger, “May, acid green like a new/snake, past scorchewalked August/into September.” It’s a confession of an affair, the transformative serpent of desire, of knowledge. The speaker’s secret affair has changed her, and isolates her from her long time lover. The poem’s structure snakes and breaks, as the poem moves into its second half where the speaker experiences a hallucinatory walk in the fog. This walk finds the speaker alone, questioning the ”Something-- an airborne/jellyfish..it dazzled, glittered...No one else/noticed anything.” The only person whom the speaker can share this experience with is the long time lover whom the speaker is straying from. It’s an aching, shimmering moment that opens the second section of Breathing Things; elegy, rooted in marriage, and addiction.
“To Cast A Shadow Again” is an eight section movement that crosses the landscape of a relationship. The poem is frosty as winter, even as Gekker moves through the seasons, as the speaker “want<s> to hold -/one green branch on a hibernating tree”, or “held fireballs” in her mouth. At times the couple are two bees “fighting or courting”, and later the other is like “fish/brush<ing> against” the speaker as she navigates a relationship that is submerged. It’s a sensuous poem, Gekker uses wetness, the feel of the earth, moonlight breaking against the treeline, firecrackers and fireballs, as touchstones for the scope of the relationship that casts a shadow on the poet writing the poem(s), as well, casting a shadow on the speaker in the poem. The other is almost never fully realized, appearing as a pair of hands, feet, pale white flesh, lips, shadowed if you will, in memory. It’s a moving piece, and later in the collection Gekker offers contrasting sharpness, and anger. Alcoholism is a particularly ugly kind of addiction because its social face is a skid row bum; drunks can go on being functional and cause long term emotional trauma for loved ones simply drinking is far more acceptable, and sometimes even expected behavior. Alcoholism keeps on giving, and Gekker burns away the underbrush of a rotten lot with its detritus in “Rutting Fall” and “Grammar’s Emotional Rules”, and the Abecedarian “Alcohol Beckons Constantly, Derails”.
The collection becomes more hopeful as Gekker’s speaker burns the energy of life after a relationship ends. Gekker’s sensuality is rooted in the Dionysian earth, and the third section of BreathingThings is rooted in nature, and the bright colors of birds, tree frogs, even poison ivy. The speaker in the title poem meets a turtle in search of a mate, on her walk. Gekker’s poems captures the sound of their mating which she wonders will keep her from sleeping. It’s a poem of longing, and of hope. There’s a nervous, nervy, freshness to the book’s perspective, by design, as Gekker begins to close the loop on the collection.
The final section of Breathing Things is rooted in love for her dog. These are poems of work, of memory, and Gekker is doing the poet’s work of bridging the past with the present. While the previous sections accomplished this through the exploration of death, divorce, and rebirth, the final section accomplishes this by celebrating the brief life of her dog. Gekker’s speaker has also once again become a caregiver, to her dog, and it is one that resonates with healing. The emotional landscape is firmer, and the speaker happier. The past is scarred over, like the moon. Gekker moves the reader through the relationship, the dog sometimes alight over the yard, or twitching in sleep. A dog’s life is small, and in the scope of worldly things, so is human life.
Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the managing editor for The Broadkill Review. Whitaker is a teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, an educator, and a grant writer. His poems have appeared in Oxford Poetry, The Scores, Grub Street, and Anderbo, among other journals. He is the author of four chapbooks of poetry and a broadside from Broadsided Press. Mulch, his novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press in 2020.