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Margaret Rozga reviews Velocity of Love by Kathryn Gahl

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The Velocity of Love by Kathryn Gahl

Water’s Edge Press, https://www.watersedgepress.com/, 2020

118 pages. $20.00

Review by Margaret Rozga

Love poetry written in the second person addresses a singular “you”,  the lover or the beloved. Readers of the poem share in the intimacy and tenderness of the lover’s words, whether they were spoken or imagined. Kathryn Gahl’s new book, The Velocity of Love is in this tradition of inviting readers to share in the love she tenderly presents in poems that are love notes. 

The singular “you” Kathryn Gahl addresses, however, is not a romantic interest, not another adult, but a grandchild, who soon takes a place in the family. He is a boy as becomes clear with the first ultrasound. In this poetic memoir, he is lovingly imagined before birth, treasured during a short life, and still cherished as a presence after dying too young. Each phase of this love is given equal weight as the book has three sections of equal length: Anticipation, Realization, and Lamentation.

Some basic facts about the child’s life do not enter the poems. His name does not appear all. Nor is the cause of his death or his age at death given. These facts are not needed because they do not alter the love that is the book’s main theme. The child engenders and amplifies love, however brief his life. 

As I read the poems and hear the grandmother address her grandchild, I am pulled into this love, how it is longed for. When the child’s mother shares news of her pregnancy, the grandmother feels, “gaiety tumbles from heaven / a wisp of winter / glorious joy snow”. Other family members, uncles aunts, cousins, are all “crazy with happy // when they hear / of your coming.”  Love may bring worry, and the mother feels the weight of new financial obligations and providing care, but love is also hopeful and forward-looking. Quickly and thoroughly it transforms lives from past and present to future tense. In “Toys,” the grandmother hopes “you will / crawl inside your / own mind—” and will prefer to “bang spoons on kettles” and “pound pots with paddles” over “plastic inventions.” She thinks also about the possibility that “you will turn / out to be // a high hugger / cuddler”. 

The child’s birth propels the grandmother’seems to make more real his future. She writes, “you will one day / walk a long / country lane” with a dog as good company, and that she will be there “the day you graduate”.  She writes to him again of her hope that he will not be eager for material things, but that he will embrace the simple obligation to “amplify love.”

The book is testimony to the child’s having fulfilled this simple obligation to amplify love. After his death, another toddler smiles at the grandmother in a grocery stores, and at that moment, she finds “her heart seizing / at the thought of you” and she notes again the quality of this love, “My littlest love, / who grew / to be / my largest”.

As appropriate for notes to a child, these are not poems of language intricacy. They remind me of the style of a nurse’s notes, and Gahl had a twenty-five year career as a registered nurse in which to practice this style: short lines, mostly short poems, focused on precisely recording detail of moments in the child’s life and in her own thinking. Now as a practicing poet, Gahl turns to simile, alliteration, and internal rhyme to enhance and elevate specific moments. Anticipating the child’s birth, for example, she writes, “When you arrive / wrinkled and full of / stork bites, crinkled / as parchment paper”,  a description filled with her knowledgeable delight.

The poems began with notes, Gahl tells us in an afterward, “in real time” during the pregnancy, after the birth, and then after the death. What I find most remarkable, then, is the courage to let this story unfold. Gahl returns to the joy of anticipation and is able to let it soar. She has the courage to let words do their work of re-creating what she anticipated as she anticipated it even though what she anticipated was not to be. 

For a reader who knows the end from the beginning, the written text has a companion ghost text. We read these poems not as they were written, but as they have become layered. What I find remarkable is that the poet herself could come back to them with knowledge of how their simple hope and joy became complex and shadowed. The joy of that love, however, was never overshadowed. It lives on in these poems.

Kathryn Gahl is also the author of Life Drawing Class, published by the Cottage Corollary, 2009. One of her poems won a prize in the 2020 Mill Place Poetry Awards. I served as judge in this contest and thus first learned of her poetry. She is also the winner of the 2020 Hal Prize in both Fiction and Poetry, 2019 Council of Wisconsin Writers Lorine Niedecker Poetry Award, and the Wisconsin People & Ideas Fiction Winner in 2015 and 2011. 

Margaret Rozga Biographical Statement

As 2019-2020 Wisconsin Poet Laureate, Margaret Rozga co-edited the anthology Through This Door: Wisconsin in Poems (Art Night Books, 2020) and the chapbook anthology On the Front Lines / Behind the Lines (pitymilkpress, 2021). Her fifth book of poems is Holding My Selves Together: New and Selected Poems (Cornerstone Press, 2021).