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Jesse Lee Kercheval's I Want to Tell You

Charles Holdefer

I Want to Tell You
Jesse Lee Kercheval
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2023


nlike joy, grief is tenacious. When grieving, how frustrating it is when someone tells you to “turn the page”—an inappropriate metaphor if there ever was one. After all, if you turn the page, you’re still holding the book, while to throw away the book means not just throwing away grief but a part of yourself, your life story.

In I Want to Tell You, Jesse Lee Kercheval’s latest collection of poetry, she addresses this paradox of love and loss. A highly versatile writer, Kercheval has also published fiction, memoir, translations from Spanish, and recently, graphic narratives. The first poem of this volume announces her aesthetic:

I am talking about breaking out of the neat little box of humorous lines
rising to a      zing
of cosmic meaning at the end.
I know—I’ve
written them too.      Still do—poems
too damn much like Methodist sermons.

There is little sermonizing in I Want to Tell You. While there are turns of wit, these are not in the service of jokes. Rather, these 37 poems explore, in various guises, the emotional toll of our awareness of mortality.

Some poems are probing statements about politics and war, for instance “How the Parents Left Us” and the excellent “Final Report on the Lost Footage of the War” which concludes chillingly: “You think you know which war I’m talking about—but you’re wrong.” Shared public tragedies persist across cultures and generations. A poem like “One City Built Upon Another” takes the long view of geological time and the comparative pettiness of human affairs.

Most of the poems, however, are more intimate. The speaker refers frequently to her dead mother and is at turns tender and exasperated and unsparing of a woman who, years after her departure, still commands attention. In “The Half-Life of Grief” we are told, “Today [ . . . ] all I could think about was you dying dying dying.” In “A Poem in which My Mother Speaks,” the speaker channels her mother’s voice, beginning with “Call me bitch—” and near the end, throws out reproaches:

but the daughter I love is not listening
but the daughter I love does not hear
but the daughter I love does not answer

Survivor’s guilt animates many of these poems. Unlike her mother, the speaker doesn’t possess the consolations of religion. God, or God’s absence, figures largely in “A House is Never Empty,” “Dormition,” “Black Night” and “God has no name.” In “On Being Still Alive,” transcendence is lacking but not a sense of awe:

I feel this need to bow
     as the enigma that is life rains down


And, inevitably, there is fear. The speaker has experienced the vicissitudes of life but the worst is yet to come, when “everything we love will vanish soon as if sucked down a drain / into a basement full of dark.” The poem “[Here right here]” describes a sense of foreboding:

I’ve been lucky—

Is that what makes me
     so afraid
that one day luck will stop
the door, a tiny trap, snap shut?

I Want to Tell You concludes with a lengthy parting statement, “I Am Telling You,” in which the speaker looks back on her life with a disabused perspective that recalls the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. She observes the vanity of human aspirations and of her own striving, even of poetry itself:

It’s not a life to hope for—
always hunting words
writing books made of butchered forests.
[ . . . ]
I know it’s hard to want only what you have
even the family dog, sleeping by the couch, twitches in her sleep
dreaming of rabbits
& more rabbits
& then more rabbits still.

Such is our plight, she suggests: lives spent chasing after dream rabbits. She advises her reader to make the effort to slow down, to notice, to allow oneself to simply be. Still, it’s worth noting that she does not follow her own counsel. Instead of retreating into silence, she records her experience in the verbal dream rabbit of an artfully wrought poem. (I’m reminded of Beckett: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”) This is the paradox that underpins this rich and thought-provoking collection.


Charles Holdefer