by Jessica Goody
Publisher: Phosphene Publishing Company
Publication date: November 3, 2016
Trim: 6 x 9 inches
review by Ona Gritz
“I can read my life in the pages of the history books,” Jessica Goody tells us in her poem “Human Curiosity”. Indeed, Goody, who has cerebral palsy, reveals a rich knowledge of disability history in her debut collection, Defense Mechanisms, and shares it generously. In the opening section of the book, Being Handicapped, she inhabits not just her own disabled body but many. We meet Franklin Roosevelt just as he’s released from an iron lung, the poet’s uncle, who suffered the cruelties and indignities of life in the infamous Willowbrook State School, and an amnesiac who describes him/herself, using Goody’s wonderfully unique poetic logic as “…a noun without adjectives.” It’s a logic that’s quirky yet always precise, giving us “the time-release process of menopause” (“Mastectomy”), and describing “the volatile verbosity of Tourette’s” as “a simple refusal to let the subconscious remain unheard” (“Neurodivergency”).
Goody has a passion for detail and a desire for exactitude that, at its best, has the probing quality of early Sharon Olds. Her images pile up to refine and refine like an adjustable photo lens bringing its subject continally closer. “The place where his eye used to be is a dark hollow, / a knothole; the cracked china face of a broken doll, / one long-lashed eye winking shut, his empty eyelid / bruised like rotten fruit” (“Prosthetics”).
Another of her gifts is the ability to present her clear narratives without sacrificing music. She does this with the skillful blending of internal rhyme—”a swelling bead like a burst pomegranate seed” (Drawing Blood), alliteration—”the twitches and tics of sudden spasm” (“Senses”), and a keen ear for rhythm—”Water droplets like facets of crystal flash from/the sun-browned bodies of splashing children” (“Polio”).
The second section of the book, Green Sentinels, offers poems that grapple with death interspersed with meditations on nature. It is in the latter that the poet’s good ear and keen observational powers are most apparent. “The sea teams with texture,” Goody states in her poem Galapagos. The same can be said of the many seascapes in this section, including the lyrical and closely observed Beachcombing, where “white froth flashes and glows about / damp ankles like swirling dancers’ skirts” and Oceans, where “every seashell has/been shipwrecked, berry-picked from the tide.”
We meet whales who “…click and moan in a damp dialect” (“Whale Song”) and a dolphin—with its patent-leather flesh—who describes for us his life in the limited world of an aquarium tank.
Another strong example is “Pinnipeds”, a kind of list poem in which each item is a precisely, at times humorously, described creature. Here, seal pups have the “liquid eyes of silent film stars” and walruses are “stout and staid as dithering uncles.”
The section also includes two vivid place poems, Great Expectations, which portrays a long-abandoned garden that may have been a setting for Dickens’ novel, giving us a tea stain on porcelain that “resembles a half-healed shiner” and Ode to Isak Dinesen, which offers a lush and photographic description of Dinesen’s African abode.
Finally, Goody moves from setting back to character in Selkie where she imagines the poem’s speaker to be the mythical sea creature trapped in a human and disabled (limping) body.
The collection’s third and final section, Other Voices, contains a body of poems that are like landscape paintings. Goody’s characteristic sharp mind and finely-tuned ear are at work in lines such as those in “Metaphors for the Moon” where the subject is described as, among other things, “…a gemstone / winking on a black bed of jeweler’s velvet…a bite of butterscotch…a marble to be knocked by a precise thumb. In “Ode to the Marshes” the sea flows “…in the shifting shades of a fading bruise”, in “Fireflies”, the titular insects “blink Morse code”, and in “Diving”, “Humpbacks…prepare for their freefall into/the horizon where the elements meet, blue into blue.”
“Certain Doorways”, a strong stand-alone piece, pays homage to both curiosity and domesticity. In it, we meet the stranger wondering and wishing to peek in on other lives, and are given glimpses behind those closed doors. “Every house,” Goody tells is, “is a box filled with heartbeats, / footsteps, history…”
Another series of poems in the section takes us back through various points in history with Goody’s singular ability to empathize and enter others’ lives. Stockings is a moving portrait of poverty told through a close rendering of a worn piece of clothing. “Dust Bowl” gives us the landscape “pumiced by swirling dust” and a peek at a particular family waiting and huddled in “a dun-colored world.” We experience the dust bowl a second time in Erosion where we are shown, in a line where Goody is at her lyrical best “…a patchwork shack of stacked tires and tar paper,/the flotsom of fruit crates and fence slats.”
In “263 Prinsengracht” we are invited into the hidden apartment where Anne Frank lived out her last years. Here, the sound of her pencil on the page “might be mistaken for the scrabbling of rats overhead” and the lone window is made up of “…panes which divide / every reflection into quadrants: sunset, starlight, / moonglow, and the play of light from dancing clouds.”
In what may be Goody’s most affecting and effective poem, “Unanswered Prayers”, we find ourselves with the young workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory whose “metronome” is “the rhythm of push, seam, snip” as the fire catches and spreads, leaving the scorched bodies of the girls along with the relics and symbols most meaningful to them.
“I can read my life in the pages of the history books,” Goody has told us. Here, in the pages of Defense Mechanisms—with its land and seascapes, its precisely rendered portraits, and deep understanding of times past—we too get to read our lives in the lives of others, and we’re all the better for it. This is a timely and impressive first book.
Ona Gritz is the author of the poetry collections, Geode, (Main Street Rag 2014), and Left Standing, (Finishing Line Press, 2005). Together with her husband Daniel Simpson, she is co-author of Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems (forthcoming, Finishing Line Press) and co-editor of Challenges for the Delusional 2: Peter Murphy’s Prompts and the Writing They Inspired (forthcoming, Diode Editions). Ona’s poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Bellevue Literary Review, Seneca Review, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and many other journals and anthologies. She is also an essayist and children’s author. Her memoir, On the Whole: a story of mothering and disability is available from Shebooks, an imprint of short ebooks by women.