On Longing and Belonging:
A Review of Might Kindred by Mónica Gomery
by Mónica Gomery
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022.
I came to know Mónica Gomery’s work intimately at Tin House in the winter of 2022. As an immigrant who writes about theology as well, I was struck by a beautiful sense of belonging when I encountered her poems. I found her language refreshing, often disrupting syntax, defamiliarizing narratives, timelines, and places. When I heard that Gomery’s poetry collection Might Kindred won the Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize, I was delighted and immediately wanted a copy. What I found in this collection is not only an invitation to belong, but a reassurance that the self has always been unequivocally whole even if we must journey forward and back through time to come to that understanding.
From the very first line, we encounter a world where the self is complicated but sacred, with the speaker declaring, “I don’t know what I am, but I am not / one incarnation.” This line, an echo and disruption of God’s reply to Moses in the Book of Exodus (“I am who I am”) is only spoken once, but it becomes an anthem for the poems that follow, actively resisting any definitions that fragment the experiences of diaspora and/or queer persons.
As a daughter of immigrants, and a Jewish, queer poet, Gomery weaves the past, present, and future throughout five sections in the book, where we are presented with time and place in non-linear sequence. In holding out against chronology, Gomery captures the body, and the mind, in different places at once — and the reader is right there with her in mountains, rivers, seas, in urban neighborhoods, night clubs, and synagogues.
The series of poems entitled “Here” recur with different settings, but they are all related to the sense that Here is anywhere. The speaker moves from an inward contemplation of theology and ancestry to a more modern, outward setting where we enter a gun-violent neighborhood. This first “Here” poem demonstrates the poet’s awareness that her survival is not the only one at stake. Up until now, the speaker has been in various states of “shouldering,” whether it’s carrying the past, holding a secret, or physically shouldering open a door. In repeating the imagery of “shoulders,” Gomery deftly shares the weight with all of us and tells us that “to be a human being is to encounter debris.” In the first section of the book, we are invited to share and offload our own “debris” so that we, like the speaker, can share in shouldering the burdens of others. This offloading explicitly happens for her in the poem “Prologue”:
I gathered all that murky water, its silt and darkened turquoise swirling. I
tipped it toward the river, poured it in as best I could.
The river shimmered back at me, it ate my fear and shame. The sky alive
inside the river. The stones clapped and rocked against the water.
My ancestor, long oval face and broomstick fingers, watched. Not with a
smile and not without a smile.
This is an important moment in the book: the speaker becomes stronger once she sheds the “fear and shame,” but also the burden of pleasing and expectation. The “ancestor” watches but their opinion is irrelevant. The speaker is free and “the stones clapped.” In a later poem, the stones clap again, forces of nature cheering in recognition of embracing one’s true self.
And the true self is something that Gomery returns to again and again in the book. However, although she is engaging with queerness and diaspora, she is not grappling with wholeness or a fragmented sense of self. In fact, these poems read as love letters to the self and the world, as guides on how to remain whole in the face of damage that humans inflict on the earth and on each other. One of the most compelling lines in the book is when the speaker arrives at the sea in the poem “Because It Is Elul.” She says to the sea, “I want you to be whole.” This beautiful line reflects the speaker’s own state of wholeness. She does not “want to throw anything in” to the sea because she already gave “failures” and “bright faults” to the river in another poem. Now, speaking from a position of strength, the speaker wants the sea — and by extension the world — to heal, too. This section expertly weaves in the destruction of nature as a result of human actions and climate change, navigating large scale climate disasters like hurricanes, but also the damage one may cause in order to save another. In “Here” poem number two, we see the conundrum with what to do with pests like the spotted lantern flies when the city has so few trees to begin with.
We encounter this idea of damage throughout the book, but particularly in poems about nature and Venezuela. There is the Venezuela that is a construct of nostalgia and then there’s the Venezuela that we recognize in its current socio-political unrest. This is a place where Gomery uses restraint, allowing readers, particularly those in diaspora, to bask in the beauty of nostalgia and memory in the face of harmful reality. The poet Alina Stefanescu says that in good and bad times her immigrant parents longed for Romania because “there was no harm in longing” and Gomery certainly expresses this notion, that there is immense pleasure to be found in longing. In the poem “The Oldest Form of Prayer,” the speaker simply says, “this is a love song.” And this book is indeed a love song to the self, a love song to ancestors, a love song to Venezuela, and a love song to queerness.
The word “queer” appears a few times in the collection, but most importantly in the title poem where the speaker recalls an encounter with a queer poet and considers her reaction, her longing to get to know the poet better. She wonders, “Is this queer poetics?” The speaker never answers this question, and my sense is that Gomery is resisting a narrow definition of “queer poetics” and instead wants us to examine our own gaze which may be enacting an othering to queer writing, because “the world is capable of being in ways we [emphasis mine] never saw coming.” In the final section of the book, Gomery confronts us to face “not what’s beyond our sight, but/ what is there, contained within it.” If we see the world only from our gaze, then, for Gomery, the world has never been anything but queer. Early on, the speaker joyously shares this with us: “Everything around me was my name.” And in this collection we experience the wonder of seeing the world through Gomery’s eyes, a world where queerness is whole, a world where the mountain has always been inverted, a world where the daughter of immigrants writes “the good book.”
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