To Everything There Is, the title of Donna Vorreyer’s new book of poetry, immediately brings to mind the bible verse from Ecclesiastes and the Pete Seeger song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Everything has its season we’re told, and we know this to be true. A time for everything under heaven. What it doesn’t suggest, however, is that these seasons turn without pain, without losing faith, without bending us to breaking.
Vorreyer’s collection mirrors these seasons in its composition, with the book divided into three sections. “An Invisible Descent” includes the lead-up to her parents’ deaths; “No Blue Is That Blue” speaks to the sticky nature of grief as they slip into another realm; and “A Lament Becomes a Lantern” deals with the ceaseless nature of living with loss. Understandably, the poet addresses her own aging and mortality in the course of these cycles, seeking illusive comfort in the process. “What that is ours will remain intact? Everything / that ever was still is somewhere. Everything / that disappears disappears as if returning,” Vorreyer writes (from a cento of lines by Tracy K. Smith), capturing the endless contradiction of death and eternal life. We tell ourselves that all matter endures, even as we watch ourselves age and our parents die. If what disappears returns, how do we know when it’s back in a new form? And how to confront the inevitable fear this conundrum creates? “I want whatever time I have to be lit / by some sort of fire,” the poet says. So even in the knowledge that everything returns, she fears its leaving and anticipates grieving it when it’s gone from its current form. “Joy used / to be my companion. Sad now how much it startles,” the poet notes.
Neither of the Vorreyer’s parents went quickly. Instead, each of them deteriorated, needing more and more support at a time that got harder and harder for Vorreyer. “Her work / was to let the machine of survival break down,” she says of her mother (from a cento of Ada Limón lines). “People have done this before, but not us.” We believe when young that our parents exist solely for the purpose of caring for us. While we slowly realize as we grow that this is not their only purpose, we hold on to some remnant, some shred of this assumption for our own comfort. Nothing challenges this more that the decline of our parents’ health, a reality that insists on breaking down the cushion we need to feel safe. Vorreyer visits her father at his nursing home as he starts to lose himself in illness, where he
swatted at me,
pushed me away when I tried to kiss him
hello. Mumbled prison. Mumbled
conspiracy. Told me to go to hell …
for the first time
in my life, he didn’t say I love you
when I left. I still crumble at the thought.
How cruel that her father is least like himself as he’s leaving, when Vorreyer needs him to be himself the most. In this way, the loss of him begins before he departs, and she grieves him while he’s still present. His form transforms while still in this realm.
After her father passes, the pall of her dawning reality of absence shows itself in the poem “After Observing the Mummy With My Students at the Museum,” in which Vorreyer has trouble focusing on her students’ questions to the docent, instead focused on her loud, beating heart, “first to care / for then to bury both parents within five months / their lives too entwined to survive one without / the other.” First unsure how to characterize and confront the mummy, a representation of death and preservation, someone gone but still here, she lands on “peaceful,” hearing the song “remembered, remembered.” The tangible turns to echo. We prefer the tangible but find some measure of peace in the knowledge that the echo lasts and lasts.
This echo brings questions about how we endure beyond the corporeal. “How can I be lost in a world / that cracks its heart to please me /pushing life up and up and flowering / despite everything?” Vorreyer wonders. And how to incorporate an absence into the presence of everyday? Lost in memory of her mother, the poet realizes how much she and her mother have merged: “I would sit with her and notice every moment / rebuke her for thinking she was not good enough / a mistake I still make, one that I am making right now,” she tells us in the poem “I Inherit the Whims of My Mother as I Prepare to Trash This Draft.”
The poet also challenges herself and her notions of aging as she mourns her parents. “Naked in the mirror, I try / to arrange myself in ways / that do not invite / shame.” To everything there is a season. She notices dissolution all around her. Seeing dead frogs in the road while running, she admits, “I don’t pretend to understand death / or resurrection, both beyond my reason.” But Vorreyer’s lucky in seeing decay; it means she has loved and lost, and that what she had had value. “How brazen to say / that love is a choice,” she laments. She lived in love. It still beats within her, her pain a testament to the gifts she’s been given. A beautifully written collection well worth the journey.
To Everything There Is, by Donna Vorreyer. Knoxville, Tennessee: Sundress Publications, October 2020. 84 pages. $12.99, paper.
Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018), and the chapbook Gathered Bones Are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Rust + Moth, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere. Amy’s work can be found at amystraussfriedman.com.