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Gretchen Marquette's May Day offers poems of grief and recovery

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The term “May Day” can have different connotations depending on whether or not those two syllables contain a space between them. Separate, they imply a springtime celebration; united, they evoke a crisis situation. Poet Gretchen Marquette delves into both uses in her new book of poetry, May Day, which was released by Graywolf Press just this past weekend.

The Minneapolis-based writer’s emotionally raw yet sensual poems plumb the depths of nature as well as the absence of loved ones in her life. The slow death of a relationship, in all its bittersweet agony and ambiguity (“That last night, you knew it, even though I didn’t yet. What burns has to burn itself out. I was already someone else.”) juxtaposes with the more blatant threat of losing her Army-enlisted brother during his deployments (“Either the man who will kill / my brother does not exist, / or else he has been breathing for decades / under the Iraqi sun.”).

Nature is the accompanying constant. It provides a safe space for Marquette to process her grief (“Now there’s light from another, / better world. The sun is out.”), yet also reflects the senseless pain in her personal life (of a road-kill turtle, she writes: “I couldn’t help crying, couldn’t keep anything from harm. / I’m sorry, you said, and let it hurt.”). Ultimately, lessons are learned: lessons about loving, letting go, and beginning again.

City Pages: The title May Day could have a couple of different meanings. What does it mean to you?

Gretchen Marquette: If it was one word, it would be a distress call, and that’s pertinent because these poems deal with loss and grief. Not the calm version of those things; a disoriented, threatened version of loss. Ultimately, we chose for it to be May Day with two words because it is a hopeful book as well. I live in Powderhorn and the May Day festival here is one of the defining features of our neighborhood. I also spend a lot of time writing at the May Day Café.

CP: Tell us about the influence of nature on these poems. Deer are especially represented.

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GM: I grew up in a small town until I was 10 years old. We lived out in the woods. I’ve loved animals my entire life. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a wildlife rehabilitator. The deer were always mysterious; they’re kind of shocking when you see them. They’re so beautiful. Occasionally, they would show up in our yard, and I was completely mesmerized by them. When we moved away, we moved to a smaller-sized city. All that wildlife disappeared.

In this book, deer really represent how strong and vibrant something can be, and also how fragile. A lot of poems about my brother feature deer because he’s a very athletic, tall, strong, young person, but he could be taken down by something very tiny, like a bullet.

My editor teased me at one point in my manuscript that we really needed to “thin the herd.” The deer that are left are there with great intention because there were many more at one point.

CP: What can you tell me about your brother?

GM: He’s not dead. [A review in the print edition of the Star Tribune erroneously reported that he was. It was corrected online and in greater Minnesota print editions.] He was deployed to Iraq first, then to Afghanistan. While these poems were being written, there wasn’t a lot of resolution yet about what was going to happen with him. I would be walking around sometimes and have this unshakable anxiety, like when you have an important doctor’s appointment coming up. I would realize it was just that my brother was gone and there wasn’t anything I could do to mitigate that. I was going to be worried until he was home.

CP: How did the way you felt about your brother’s deployment compare to the heartbreak you felt at the end of the relationship described in the book?

GM: One of those kinds of grief is about choices that somebody made and the other kind of grief was about not having any control. I couldn’t control that my brother was gone or in the military. I couldn’t control when I would be able to speak to him or hear from him. That was, in some ways, a lot more frustrating. The grief around the loss of my relationship was fraught for a number of reasons [but] he wasn’t dead. I was really worried my brother was going to be killed or badly hurt. They exist in different places in my mind.

CP: Regarding the person you were in a relationship with: Does he know he’s been written about?

GM: One of the last conversations I ever had with that person, I had given him a version of the manuscript. He had said he didn’t need to see it and that he wouldn’t ever tell me what I could or could not write about, but I asked him to look at it anyway, and he did. There are some poems in this book that he hasn’t seen and that I’m not sure he’ll ever see, but the bulk of it he did read.

CP: It also seems like there’s some baby lust in these poems?

GM: Yes, because the person that I was with, we were together for seven years and I really loved him and wanted to have a family with him. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to just have a baby; I wanted to have a baby with him. Once he disappeared, that whole family disappeared along with him. I wasn’t really prepared for how that would make me feel. It kind of doubled the loneliness given that these people that I had been dreaming about for a couple of years suddenly were never going to exist.

CP: After writing these poems, do you have hope for new beginnings? Is that what the spring theme is about?

GM: The fifth section [of the book] is everything that happened after that relationship was completely over, so there’s an idea of moving forward, even if the moving forward doesn’t mean “happily ever after.” I’m just starting to come to terms with the fact that you can have these experiences and love people but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to be okay. “A report from dark time” is how my editor phrased it, which I really appreciated. It is a report from a dark time, but it’s also a way for me now to occupy a different space in the world.

For the book to come out and have people reading these poems, at first it felt a little bit vulnerable for me, because my heartbreak is so visible here. But for everybody who can relate to them, they take it on in a certain way and it becomes our heartbreak instead of my heartbreak. In that way, it’s really comforting. Even though the book is filled with a lot of darkness and sadness, ultimately, it’s a hopeful thing. It makes me really happy every time I see it.

IF YOU GO:

Gretchen Marquette, May Day Launch

7 p.m. Saturday, May 7

 Uptown Church

Free

All Ages