There’s a raw and sinewy energy to Elisa Gonzalez’s line. Her debut collection, Grand Tour, clarified and found its final form in the years after her brother was shot to death. So it is a first book and also a shattered elegy, an announcement and an aftermath, by turns impassioned and dispassionate as it registers grief in many forms. It begins with “Notes Toward an Elegy,”
The Cypriot sun is impatient, a woman undressed
who can’t spare the time to dress, so light
like a vitrine holds even a storm.
One day in the Old City, a pineapple rain.
And I’m on my way home from the pharmacy, carrying my little bag of cures.
Refuge at the café in the nameless square.
Nihal brings espresso poured over ice, turns off the music.
We listen to rain fall through the light until the end.
That’s the end of the stanza and the rain but the beginning of the poem and the book. It’s as if the poet’s point of departure is the place where two Yeatsian gyres meet just as they go their separate ways:
Hot mornings. Hot apple tea, honeyed.
The mountains a fist knuckled on the horizon.
Dust is coming, dust is not yet here.
Gonzalez is brilliant in the detail, and in the way she makes a poetry of description, laying down noticings, one upon another, until she renders a sudden claritas of lyric seeing like “We listen to rain fall through the light until the end.” Or, a few lines later, passing from description to metaphor: “I accept the presence of dances invisible to me.”
The book finds little in the way of acceptance or peace in the face of the violence of the world, and still the poet here is engaged in a “Lovers’ Discourse” with that world nonetheless, a kind of dance. “I love alone, I tell my sister,” writes Gonzalez, “She says, You just want to.” The voice is a voice caught in-between, always on the move—a grand tour that moves from Ilium to Gdansk to “Present Wonders,” the book’s final poem, a confession that “there’s no elegy for the ongoing.” But there is new life, or the dream of new life—which is sometimes a remembered life—and which is poetry:
I like the idea of a world of clouds
and so I want to watch you
walk down to the sea as you used to
from the mountain’s peak,
descending into the sun, fog
like cobwebs in your hair.
JESSE NATHAN: Some lines in this book are longer and roll on. Many are terse and spare. There are often different stanzaic shapes. There’s a coherence that’s powerful, but it’s as if the book were written by several versions of you. I’m curious how the collection emerged. How long it took. Whether it came together quickly or gradually or in bursts. How did Grand Tour come to be? I realize it’s a little like asking what makes you you.
ELISA GONZALEZ: Surprise and reinvention are qualities that I pursue in poetry, as a reader and as a writer, so I hope that myriad styles, stanzas, and lines remain available to me in the future—and that I can learn new ways of writing poems. If I believe in “voice,” it’s as a binding agent, so multiplicity—or even multitudinousness—seems only an aid to poetry, rather than a sign of incoherence. That said, you’re correct in intuiting that the book intermingles poems from different years, even—to speak with some grandiosity—different personal eras.
So “how long it took” becomes difficult to specify. There are poems, such as “The Mountain Lion” and “Home” and “Tornado in August,” that were originally drafted when I was in college. Other poems were written in early 2022, like “Mirror,” “Puente de Piedra,” and “After My Brother’s Death, I Reflect on the Iliad.” In all that interim time, I was writing poems—hundreds and hundreds of them, so many that will never be seen by anyone except me, and a smaller number that have been published but won’t be collected, at least not yet. But I wasn’t necessarily working on a book. I wanted to write a book. I’ve wanted to write a book for nearly my entire life. And at various points, I did assemble collections that I think were basically competent. And included poems that at times weren’t.
What held me back, I think, were the limits of my imagination for myself. I just didn’t believe I could finish a collection of poetry. It’s boring to admit, but I think the cause of my limited imagination is very simple: I grew up poor, without anyone in my life who was a writer, I was homeschooled and thus somewhat isolated—and then launched into elite institutions in which I had to find my footing fast and yet constantly felt out of place. I developed a necessary imagination—I learned how to adapt—but I struggled to inhabit the self-belief required to fulfill larger ambitions.
So the collection came together in late 2021 and early 2022, at a point when I told myself, essentially, “Put up or shut up.” By which I mean, I thought I needed to either make the book, and definitively fail at making it—or, wild thought, even succeed—or I needed to choose a different pursuit.
I don’t believe one needs to publish to be a poet. But I do think that I needed to move on from the tedium of self-doubt and perform the more exciting, more terrifying action of actually reaching for what I desired. Really risk both failure and success.
To some extent, my personal ultimatum emerged because my youngest brother died in 2021. Afterward, when I did think about Grand Tour—which at the time I was calling Uncollected Essays—I thought that it would be one of the casualties of the enormous tragedy. How could I work on poems that were written by someone who hadn’t experienced this, and didn’t know it would happen? Those poems were finished because the person who wrote them was finished. But then, through the interventions of friends such as Jameson Fitzpatrick (a beloved poet and confidante), I realized that the book could be the story of the life before this breach, and the life after, all mixed together rather than chronologically presented—that every tragedy or pleasure captured before would be infused with a new, sharp irony, because of the ignorance of the past self, and the reality of all those years, eras, selves coexisting. So that the past became alive with significance, rather than suffocated by the presence of death.
I like to think that the current title exerts a salutary irony on the book, and that it gestures to that sense of having traveled past a certain threshold: an awareness of death, if not a knowledge of it. But also that it gestures to this natural multiplicity of self and experience: the incoherence and unity that everyone contains.
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.