Microreview: Amy Gerstler’s The True Bride

The True Bride, by Amy Gerstler
Lapis Press, 1986.

A host of anti-bromides keep coming to mind as I read and re-read Amy Gerstler’s first full-length book of poetry, The True Bride. There are sweet and tender moments enough, but they stand beside, or simmer just below, the harsher, darker urges behind the truth of the collection’s title.

Take “Christine,” the first poem: from a distance the scene is romantic, with the nighttime sky full of moon and whispers, fireflies and memories of a high school sweetheart, all floating and mixing above the titular speaker as she lies in a field. Despite these, and despite any clear or clearly named menace, there is about this poem at least a minimally regretful presence:

I should know more about the sky
after all this time on my back…. (l. 1-2)

The simile of whispers like fish bones, the sensation of them catching on the way down the throat or back out, is the first subtle hint of some kind of ambiguous emotional snag. The next lines seem to assuage the reader’s suspicions:

His kiss
dislodges them and they float up
to pierce the sincere blue firmament…. (l. 5-7)

A release, then, which might signal relief, but instead instigates a kind of remorse:

No ghost of a chance
of getting drunk enough for the
amnesia I need. (l. 8-10)

On the way home, the speaker thinks of a school-boy lover instead of the most recent, allowing the pleasant past to overtake the uncertain present:

Once in civics class, he touched my
blouse like it was a page he wanted
to turn. (l. 18-20)

This intermingling of the old and new, just like the bride’s sartorial ordinance, works throughout the collection. Men and women alternately flee from and seek guidance from memory, erasing and papering over when necessary, life a palimpsest atlas with which return navigation becomes tricky. Sometimes what’s sought, or found, in any case, is no better than what’s left behind. See “Drifter,” about a woman who’s abandoned her family. When asked about her past, she claims that “To remain in place is a woman’s ailment” (l. 1), and that “Housekeeping is a disease” (l. 3). But life on the road finds her still “still,” and still dissatisfied:

After sex
the man goes into the bathroom and washes
his hands as thoroughly as a surgeon.
I just lie there. (l. 8-11)

…And all that’s left to ask is whether it is better or more important to remember the good days or the bad. One can only answer, “I do.”

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