BOOK REVIEW: “BOOK OF THE MISSING”

BY NKATEKO MASINGA


Title: Book of the Missing

Author: Heidi Grunebaum

Year Published: 2019

Genre: Poetry

Publisher: Praxis Magazine 


Heidi Grunebaum’s Book of the Missing reads to me like an ode to the elements of nature. In fact, after reading it for the first time, on the 30th of August 2019, I pose this question to the author via the Messenger app on Facebook: 

“I see that the elements (water, earth, fire, air) and nature in its entirety are a recurring theme in Book of the Missing. Was this intentional? Would you say your work is inspired by the relationship of the human body to nature and the environment it exists in?”

Grunebaum responds: 

“The elements are very present, yes, but that was not intentional. The elements lay bare the intensities of living here at the bottom of the continent. In the shadows of war and hope and desire and failure,  the elements become a language of and for the body and the psyche…”

I realise what a privilege it is to interrogate a poet’s work with such immediacy, and for them to be as forthcoming as Grunebaum was in her response, so I save this conversation and remind myself to reread this book later, to see if my thoughts remain the same. Almost a year later, and still intrigued by her words, I embark on a journey to find those that the title implies are “missing”. I believe that perhaps by following the trail Grunebaum has invited us to follow in these poems, we can find out if the “intensities of living at the bottom of the continent” can be overcome, or if “the missing” become victims of the (sometimes fatal) elements they are exposed to. 

The opening poem, “Searching for the Missing”, reaffirms me. The mission to find the missing is not the reader’s alone, but that of the speaker/s in these poems as well. A line in the third stanza provides a clue: “Resurrect the memories”. Perhaps “the missing” are not completely gone, but only momentarily forgotten…

WATER

In the second poem, “In the rain”, we are introduced to our first element, water. The speaker in this poem says,

“the twilight grey slides into black
gossamer rain insistent
whipping diamond threads
across the window pane
in the thundering cobalt seas”

The image of rain and darkness is effective in conveying the desolation felt by the speaker upon being left alone by a loved one. Here, “the missing” could refer to the void felt by the speaker, who, while the storm insistently brews outside, is drowning their sorrows at the table:

“I am still at the table
between the last whiskey
and uncounted cigarettes”

AIR

As if to quiet the storm, the first words of the next poem declare, “Be still in the wind” and I am almost relieved, assuming that there is a respite from the chaos. This is, however, not the case. Our next element, air, has arrived through the next poem, “Wild winds”, to cause more destruction: 

“See how carelessly it tosses the gulls
how the waves crevasse the trodden sands
Its glacial claws tear into my skin
bruising my soft insides
flinging stomach and uterus
against lungs and liver”

FIRE

In “Prophesies of Fire”, residues of the wild winds we have passed through remain as we are introduced to another element, fire:

“wind howls revolution
in these moonless nights
prophecies of fire
pressed beneath my lids
remain long after
the scorching stillness
of summer’s end
gasps in their place.”

Grunebaum’s skilful use of language allows nature not only to sing through these poems, but to dance in them. Like the sparks rising above a raging flame, nature is what we see even when we are looking for something else. Where are “the missing”? Will we ever find them? Perhaps my preoccupation with the idea of “the missing” has led me off course. At the heart of these poems is a longing for connection, a desire to outlive the inevitable endings we encounter in this world: seasons, relationships, fleeting fires. 

As Grunebaum said to me almost a year ago, this body of work deals with the “intensities of living here”, which is to say that if we are indeed to live (here), then we must accept that the experience will be intense. There will be rain, wild winds and fires, but is that all? Is there room for intense joy too?  

EARTH 

Our next element, “earth”, reminds us that no matter how violently the wind may sway us, we are rooted somewhere. In “Palm Trees”, the speaker says:

“When the palms were
Brought to the place
Beneath the great Seamountain
Their roots took refuge
In the shrouded soil.”

The word “refuge” is a source of comfort. It implies safety, protection, home. One could think we have come full circle here, but “Palm Trees” is at the midway mark of this chapbook as if beckoning us to gather our bearings and proceed with the second half of the journey. However, my exploration of the collection through nature’s elements ends here. Prematurely, perhaps? Perhaps not.

There is a richness to Grunebaum’s Book of the Missing which extends beyond a simple question set or the “cheat sheet” offered to me by forces of nature mentioned in these poems. There are people, stories, places, long silencesexpressed through white space on the page and in poems tooand perhaps “the missing” are found wherever the reader chooses to go. I have chosen to follow nature’s path through a portion of this collection, but another reader may decide otherwise. Perhaps the “missing” portion of this review will be written by you, fellow reader… 


Heidi Grunebaum’s Book of the Missing is free to download here:
BOOK OF THE MISSING