Book Review: Night Court
by Erica Goss
Glass Lyre Press, 2017
Winner of the 2016 Lyrebird Prize
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
Gosh, I love poetry. I have been loving these poems by Erica Goss for some time now, and marvel anew, each time I read Night Court, at the pure, clear voice of the poet. Here are the first few lines from the title poem, which might almost be a précis of the book itself:
when the rates are cheapest
I put my tragedies on the witness stand.
In Night Court, we do witness tragedies. They testify for themselves in clear, clipped language, the kind a judge might insist upon (“They have sworn to tell the truth / and nothing else.”), but not without mystery: “they are precise as nightmares.”
Here’s one of the tragedies—“a twelve- / year-old boy killed my brother. / He was nineteen.”—smashed into the poem “Remember Three Words.” Another “started in the morning, / when my father’s heart wobbled / like the eccentric moon.” That’s in the poem “Phase,” and the father’s condition seems permanent, not a phase, or else it is, like the phases of the moon, something that comes and goes in our perception of it but is still always there.
One of the tragedies happens in “Early Morning, San Bernardino, 1969,” but, for the children, is part of a prolonged night, “tar-black and star-smeared.” They wait with their father, expected to witness a message he expects from “the heavens,” a message that does not come.
Kept up all night as a child, it’s not surprising this grown-up speaker suffers from insomnia in several poems, including “What Insomniacs Hear.” They hear many things, including the
sigh of theater seats
as a small, disheveled audience
settles in for the late-night movie:
my dreams on the screen.
There are moments of sheer relief: snow covers a garden with a new skin. A girl climbs down from a tree on the ladder of her mother’s voice. Briefly, in a fairy tale, a white bear turns into a prince. There are omens, shivering cold moments, sharp realizations. And there is acceptance. “I want to // open the blue door / of my heart and let / the wolf in.” Oh, yes, if the wolf is at the door, invite him in.
“I have been too loyal / to grief,” says Erica Goss in “Easter Sunday.” But her loyalty gives grief that clear bell of a voice. A bell that echoes across mountains. Then a new thing happens. “Now when sorrow answers / it doesn’t matter.” Joy comes, who knows how…but perhaps with a little humor, a little word play. “Joy scrambles sadness” when you are hiding colored eggs on an Easter morning. Sometimes being loyal to grief is being loyal to joy.
You can read “Arrhythmia” from Night Court here at Escape Into Life. As I re-read Night Court this fall, while fires raged in northern and southern California, I was again saddened by her poem “Fire Season,” first published in Bone Bouquet, and resurrected at Goss’s website in August, during another set of wildfires. Lately, it’s always fire season….