(Oakland, CA: Nomadic Press)
As the editor of PANK and Fjords Review, the editor-in-chief of Quiet Lunch, and the director of C&R Press, John Gosslee has a proven track record of discovering and publishing fearless and vulnerable writing. Unsurprisingly, he also has a knack for writing it. Fish Boy, published by Nomadic Press, is Gosslee’s fourth book of poetry and, without a doubt, his most soul-bearing to date. Expanding on themes of paternal inheritance, mental health, and mortality, this collection strips the self raw with honesty and forgiveness.
From the very beginning, it is painfully evident that the poet is primarily concerned with two aspects of his history: the relationship with his father and his own mental health. “My Father the Fire Bird,” the collection’s first and arguably most powerful poem, frames the relationship between a dying father and recovering son through a series of four swift, narrative-establishing temporal shifts. Beginning with the speaker lost in minutiae while his father is “locked in a stroke / the doctors can’t edit,” the poem flashes back to his father in the Vietnam War juxtaposed with a nurse feeding his father pureed beets. A scene in the aftermath of the poet’s failed suicide attempt immediately follows. Offering a glimpse of what is to be more fully fleshed out in the coming pages, the poem ends with a direct address: “And father, people have begun / to love my words, chewed so hard / in your mouth, dropped into mine.”
Demonstrated in the first poem by the father’s words entering the speaker’s mouth through a brilliant subversion of the mother bird trope, one of the main themes of the collection is the speaker’s desire and inability to find his voice. The poet relies on other people to vocalize when and what he cannot. In “When I Walk Through the Golden Door, I Want to Walk Through the Golden Door,” the poet explains, “Jessica pushed me against the car at the club, / put her tongue in my mouth, and I spoke.” In “Terminus,” the poet explains he has his father’s “warm tongue” and that “My mother and father build my mouth.” In “Beginning of the Book,” the poet fails to speak altogether: “I mumble, the only thing I do well besides drink / and take and take and TAKE and TAKE AND TAKE.” Although the poet possesses the physical tools to speak, the individual poems catalogue failed attempts. But however difficult the process, Fish Boy itself remains a testament to the poet discovering his voice.
For a work so emotionally assertive, there is also a sense of pervading silence, as if all the poems were whispered underwater. This silence is the distortion of trauma which manifests itself as speechlessness. In lieu of speaking, the poet dissociates his body from his life. In “Fish Boy,” the poet projects his narrative onto a movie screen because reliving his father’s death, seen here as the point of no return, is simply too painful. In “All of the Plant is Edible,” the dissociation continues as the speaker encounters himself unconscious: “and there are no texts to relieve the shock / of finding my own body on the doorstep.”
The title of the collection foreshadows this sense of dissociation and displacement, and the speaker becomes the literal fish boy, a hybrid-being at home neither in water nor on land. Gosslee writes, “In the story of the boy, he wants / out of his skin and the water,” but one is never quite sure whether the boy has skin or scales, or a combination of both. This concern with skin continues in “Beautiful Hour,” when the poet says, “My skin is a copy of the skin I was born in / and I don’t know what it means.” The speaker finds himself in this very position many times in the collection. At the club, the speaker “looks for a quick way out of the lens / and party I love so little.” The speaker seeks the warm peace and cleansing of his bathtub to wash off the glitter, or scales.
In the end, Gosslee’s collection offers a message of hope. “And I’m so thankful that everyone is a broadcast,” he writes, “for the life our evolution knows is still possible.” These poems are lovely, dark, and complex. These are poems that one can return to over and over again to listen to a poet’s voice growing clearer and more confident, speaking honestly and fearlessly about mental illness and loss, and overcoming it all.
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Aaron Bristow-Rodriguez was born in Wisconsin. He received his BA from the University of Minnesota. He is a third-year MFA poetry candidate at Wichita State University and the co-editor-in-chief of Mikrokosmos and mojo.