Review of Book of Gods and Grudges by Jessica L. Walsh

Cover of Book of Gods and Grudges: An axe with a long wood handle and a clean steel head lies in the middle of dark green grasses.

Book of Gods and Grudges by Jessica L. Walsh

Glass Lyre Press, 2022

78 pages, $16.00

Review by Merie Kirby

In Book of Gods & Grudges, what Jessica L. Walsh brings to the long conversation of poetry is vital and irreplaceable. From the cover with that gorgeous ax at the center of lush greenery to the last poem’s defiant embrace of survival, the reader is listening to a voice committed to seeing clearly. The speaker in this book – and it does feel like there is a single, cohesive speaker across all the poems in the volume – is figuring out what she is surviving, why she wants to survive, the cost of survival, and ultimately reconciling with the fact of her own survival. In the first couple poems, we hear about the people the speaker comes from, including “the holy fury / entrusted to me by my mother,” and as a result “For love / I hate who my people hate” (“Trespasses”). When a grandmother promises a fiancé “We are from good people,” the granddaughter corrects that assertion in the poem, telling readers “Our people were hard to love,” and “we are not from good people” (“No Trees for Shade”). 

The grudges of the title show up early, from the familial grudges maintained out of loyalty, to the ones the speaker forms on her own, a “sunless garden of grudges,” tended “with fertilizer made of acid and bones” (“You’ll Be Disappointed”). Later, in “Ledger,” the speaker mentions “Only half my journals are poetry,” leading the reader to wonder what is in the other half. The speaker doesn’t keep us wondering long, revealing that “You who owe me // favors, apologies, money, thanks – // your name is here.” This poem is followed by one titled “He Says I’ve Made Excuses,” which lists all things the speaker has made, from loan payments to conversation, from a cake to errands, from a child to laughter, but at the end we find out what “he” says the speaker has made excuses about: “I made much of little / but not enough poetry.” 

The question of what is made, and what it is worth, and who gets to decide these things reverberates through the book: “How to name what I’ve accomplished?” (“Restructuring”). Many of the poems in here grow out of the experiences of both the poetry business and academia, specifically navigating these waters as a woman and a mother. What most marks these poems is weariness. The weariness of knowing your list of accomplishments and still being told it isn’t enough of one particular thing. The weariness of “pleasing and appeasing,” (“Call It Self Care”) of “playing just a bit dumber / than whoever wore the blazer,” (“Prayer At Half-Price Books”), of times “when I sit in my car outside work / like stones are piled in my lap,” (Must Be Nice”). “Liquefaction” opens with the speaker, who is “Tired, too, / of trying to be enough,” receiving notification that her bone marrow has aged out of the donor registry; it is a “permission slip / to save no one,” and causes her to look forward to other parts “aging out” of others’ need of or desirability for those parts, and the time when “Piece by piece / I will be for myself.” In “On This Day, Right Now,” the speaker lists the status of her father, daughter, mother and husband, and then notes that “In this space before the next need // what hums in me is – // what hums in me is nothing.” At the end of the poem, she tells us “I try for gratitude, God, I do, // but I muster no more than quiet.”

The awareness of all there is to be grateful for hovers over these poems, an awareness the speaker feels she has recognized too late, after “a time / when I lived whole days // neither in pain / nor in fear of pain” (“I Walk a Slow Mile”). In another poem she characterizes this time as “a river I floated down naked and un-sunscreened” (“Names for Middle Life”). When “a young woman darts” past her, she wants to tell the woman “Each time your foot leaves the ground / call thanks to fragile world” (“I Walk a Slow Mile”).  The fragility of the world comes through in many ways, from high school classmates lost too soon (“When it’s oxy or tar we say sickness” from “Reunion”), to a husband’s cancer (“a doctor felt my husband’s neck and paused / then pushed deep / finding tumor after tumor” from “For the Record”), to a daughter’s reaction to a lockdown drill (“Someone always made noise    I couldn’t / stop crying   And he’d find us” from “Mindful”). 

Despite all the painful, wearisome, difficult experiences, Walsh’s speaker persists. In “Not Mine to Give” the speaker tells us that “The option of survival / has never been,” – and yet, there is enough in the other poems to make a reader wonder if survival was so unavoidable after all. Many people the speaker encounters along the way did not survive. At one point, online shopping for extravagant, bespoke clothing that will never be purchased, she contemplates “who I could be in the event of survival,” (“When All This is Done”) – a conditional contemplation whose very utterance demonstrates survival. The last poem of the book is a showstopper, everything you want the last poem of a book to be. In a book full of poems that had me reading out loud to my family, sending photos of pages to friends, and returning again and again to certain pages, “When My Daughter Tells Me I Was Never Punk” still stands out. 

In this poem, the speaker, who has seemingly felt ambivalent about her survival in other poems, embraces the thorny miracle of her life. She confesses, “I made my life / out of grudges when I saw the odds placed against me.” She claims as punk her choices to reject the guy who would “give me my hot young death,” and to think “what if I can try staying alive?” She chooses sobriety, even though “I was a bottle rocket, a pipe bomb of a good time / but my being alive is the middle finger I never put down.” With each act, she says, “I am threatening to survive long enough to piss off / a million awful people.” 

That garden of grudges, it turns out, has powered her survival and brought her to a place we might call “The end of trying, it’s being born again” (“Prayer at Half-Price Books”). Whether Walsh is writing in the voice of anger, indignation, compassion, weariness, love, or awe, these poems speak to experiences that perhaps we have not all inhabited, but which through our brief inhabitance of the poems, will come to be meaningful to us.


Merie Kirby smiles at the camera in a sunny room. She isn't wearing any make up, she is wearing glasses, and her hair is light brown with streaks of purple.

Merie Kirby teaches at the University of North Dakota. She is the author of two chapbooks, The Dog Runs On and The Thumbelina Poems. Her poems have been published in Mom Egg Review, Whale Road Review, SWWIM, FERAL, Strange Horizons, and other journals. You can find her online at www.meriekirby.com.