Review of Mayweed by Frannie Lindsay

Winner of the 2009 Word Works Washington Prize, Mayweed, Frannie Lindsay’s third collection, weaves lyrical textures of grief and healing. Lindsay’s poems are accessible and musical, each winding an arc of forgiveness and praise.
Lindsay brings the reader into the narrative with the title poem, writing:
Let your shame drowse as snow
in the willow’s brittle tresses,
on the meadow grass’s deafened tips.
Then let the valley of death flood simply
with mayweed, earnest as milkmaids.
In this, Lindsay is asking the unidentified you (presumably the sister whose death fills a great number of the poems in Mayweed), to rise past the prayers and the ordinary objects, the shame of being human, to find beauty in the otherworld of death and grace.
Where Mayweed is most successful is through its ability to give the reader the story through careful attention to detail and image. In “Enough,” Lindsay writes:
I can almost be happy
remembering my sister’s cello
filling our dread-laden house
those November school nights
aglare with algebra homework,
my mother’s heavy china
kthunking around in the soapy sink,
An earlier poem in the collection, “Enough” presents a picture of a sister who is filled with music in spite of the “dread” that fills the corners of the family’s daily life. Each detail is necessary, here—China dishes, homework—and begins the narrative of a sister who later will leave the family in death, but who, the speaker claims, “knew / even then she would die / before we did” (“Enough”).
As a book of healing and recovery, Lindsay’s Mayweed is concerned with relics that one keeps in the wake of loss. In the aptly titled, “Keeping Relics,” the speaker acknowledges this, saying, “who else is going to want / this gnarl of hair, this lint from the sisal mat // this crumb from a biscuit here in my drawer / of ugly things.” It is the “drawer / of ugly things” that Lindsay returns to again and again in Mayweed, each time seeking to find a missing piece, a trigger for an emotive response, or something—a father’s blue slippers under the bed (“Mercies”)—to release along with sorrow and anger.
While there is much to admire in Mayweed, but Lindsay does not present the reader with a new face of loss or recovery. The speaker uncovers the objects of the dead, returns to memories of childhood to keep the face of her sister alive, tries to forgive an abusive father. These things, while presented with precision and lyrical intensity, do not move the reader past the fact that this is another book of death and healing, of loss and forgiveness. However usual or expected Lindsay’s overall subject matter may be, however, these poems do present these themes with beauty that is difficult to find in similar lyric poems.
What is most striking about the poems in Mayweed is that the speaker finds so much to praise in times of grief and abandonment. In “Grace,” for example, Lindsay praises the way her “plain young mother” leaves “her husband’s bed at four in the morning/ carting her stained velour slippers / down the raw-grained stairs” to practice her violin even amidst the “scattered wedding photographs” that act as a symbol for a household of secrets and pain.
Through this praise, the speaker of Mayweed is able to give voice to the beauty found in loss, the small things held onto; sometimes only in memory after someone has died. Lindsay asks of the dead,
Go away from the kingdom of earth
where you loved me
follow the ground mist’s weave
that leads to the boathouse
where all the red kayaks rock without solace
keep going do not rest there
keep going my precious companion
(“Disparate Prayer”)
Mayweed can teach the reader how to let go of grief and pain, in whatever form it takes, and return to our living selves. Mayweed is a record of death, yes, but more than that, it is a directive of how to live again after emptying the closets, the wheelchair, the box of ash. In one of Mayweed’s best elegiac poems, “Elegy For My Father,” Lindsay explains that even though anger makes her “thankful for each purple star / that bloomed awhile on the soles” of her father’s feet before he died, that in the end, “all the prayers” for the dying are “for nothing; for nothing now / is kind or cruel.”
Review by Amanda Auchter

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