PEG DUTHIE Engages
the amazing adventures of Gravity and Grace by Ernesto Priego
(Otoliths, Rockhampton, Australia, 2009)
Quirky, yet profound. Template-bound, yet idiosyncratic. Sandman meets xkcd. The last description may be doing a disservice to all parties concerned -- if you were to pick up this collection specifically hoping for more Neil Gaiman or more Randall Munroe, odds are you would be disappointed, as it’s not very Sandman or xkcd in itself. However, those are the two pop-culture cornerstones that come to mind when I ponder how to describe this series of light, captivating vignettes, in which the narrator is bedeviled, mystified, and enchanted by two characters named Gravity and Grace, with guest appearances by Lust, Fate, Hope (whom Gravity identifies as her tall and gorgeous cousin), Patience (who is spotted smoking a cigarette while dressed in white), Disquiet (whose services include dusting books and massaging shoulders), and others.
In his afterword, the author states that “writing the poems in this book felt like reading a monthly comic book,” that “The Amazing Adventures of G & G was the comic book I was never able to draw, and that the reader may notice that “their words are most of the times somebody else’s. If you don’t know where the words come from ‘originally,’ I might suggest googling them: you will discover other faces, other names for Gravity and Grace. In making them repeat other people’s words I meant no disrespect: on the contrary.” I confess I had not noticed this, but then again, the gaps in both my formal education and informal reading mean that many allusions sail straight over my head without jogging a single brain cell. That said, judging from the afterword, Prieto has quite a range: he refers to Kafka, Gaiman, Shakespeare, Simone Weil, and Michel Butor, as well as Superman (DC comics incarnation), Kathy and Lenny, Enid and Rebecca, and Maggie and Hopey (and if you recognize those last three pairs, you’re way ahead of me). The poems mention The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Abbey Road, Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Dolce & Gabbana, The Blue Angel, and a host of other creations and brands.
In the wrong hands, or if the reader isn’t in the right mood, this would be really annoying. That said, I didn’t find it necessary to be intimately acquainted with any of these sources to enjoy the poems: they are playful and undemanding, inviting the reader to linger if they so choose, but not so interconnected that one must, say, make sense of page 68 before moving on to page 69. The general formula appears to be two to eight lines about what Gravity and/or Grace are doing today (many of the poems beginning with “Today” or “This morning”), followed by a one-line observation or statement about an external character or element, often beginning with the word “Outside” (“Outside, the world jumps up and down, clapping to a single beat”; “On the street, Time and Sun make sculptures of the living”; “Somewhere, a shepherd trembles”).
The personifications of Grace and Gravity are mercurial change artists who at times sound like cheeky young women and at others like crabby, cryptic biddies. They both start out with copper braids, but Grace gets “a little punk” (and is seen later “trashing her violin against the floor”) and Gravity dyes hers black (later, Grace is seen with black tresses as well); their wardrobes include a silk pink dress, a yellow bikini, black cotton underwear, a variety of stockings, a Hawaiian skirt, tall boots, and red shoes. Gravity pins the narrator to his bed while “Grace merely looks, slightly amused,” but it’s Grace who later insists “You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion” while arguing with Gravity about whether the narrator should have a beard. They mention “Sylvia and Virginia” as they inform the narrator that “we like difficult people, you know”; he casts himself as Orpheus to Grace’s Eurydice, singing lines from Dante to her “completely out of tune,” and later attempts to ref a game of footie “but am blind to offsides.”
The cast list of personified concepts infuses the series with an air of unreality and fantasy, and yet it’s the personifications that keep the poems appealingly grounded. I’m particularly fond of the glimpse of Fate playing chess with Lust while Gravity skips rope in the garden, and there’s a rightness to Grace responding to an instance of heartbreak by busily folding paper and smiling “like someone plotting a crime.” In his introduction to the collection, Ohio poet Tom Beckett calls the adventures “something akin to a dialectical house party,” and I think that’s about right: perusing them is not unlike riffling through stills from a Nouvelle Vague film, where the characters are at once both larger than life and yet specific to the moment we happen to peer at them.
Peg Duthie shares a house in Nashville with a tall man, a large dog, and a short piano. She blogs about poetry at Vary the Line and tweets about it now and then (@zirconium).