October 31, 2019

Love, Grief, and Ornithology in Joey Gould’s The Acute Avian Heart

by cns2020

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by Joey Phoenix

When spending time observing birds, it’s important to be quiet, still, and patient – skills useful for reading and writing poetry. Birds are often used as metaphors for disparate ideas like freedom, chaos, beauty, and even the macabre. There’s a bird for every occasion, every state of being, and every emotion. For Joey Gould, they are also for inspiration. 

Joey Gould is non-binary poet, dreamer, and amateur ornithologist who recently released their first book of poems The Acute Avian Heart, the launch title for new publishing company Lily Poetry Review Books, featuring poems about queer romance, grief, and, as the title suggests, birds. 

Lots of birds. 

The Acute Avian Heart is a syncopated and wing sharp intake of breath that blends the sound of rustling leaves and construction sites with the feeling of social overwhelm, nestled alongside warm light and birdsong. It’s a walk through what it’s like to feel heartbroken, grief-stricken, or out of place in your own body.

Which basically means: it’s relatable.

Cummings, Glück, and Eileen Cleary 

Joey first started writing poetry after reading E.E.Cummings’ book No Thanks in highschool, which featured a hexameter sonnet about American eccentric Joe Gould. Inspired by the name coincidence, Joey started writing poetry of their own in high school but became more focused after first taking a poetry writing class with Alan Feldman at Framingham State University, who first introduced Joey to the work of poet Louise Glück. 

Feldman, recognizing Joey’s talent, encouraged them to apply for a fellowship at Salem State University run by poet J.D. Scrimgeour, which Joey did, and got in. “It was the first time I was taken seriously as a poet,” Joey recalls. 

Through J.D., Joey would eventually be able to meet Kylie Sullivan of Salem Main Streets, the organizers of The Massachusetts’ Poetry Festival, and one of Joey’s main collaborators, poet Shari Caplan

When the time came to write The Acute Avian Heart, in addition to the support of these mentors and collaborators, Joey also turned to poet Eileen Cleary for help with editing. 

“It was one round of editorial, but it was cover to cover and made my book so much better. I’m so grateful,” Joey says.

Reading The Acute Avian Heart 

Some books of poetry can be casually read out of order, with the reader choosing pieces at random. Not with this. At the very least, Joey recommends, read the first two poems in sequence, then feel free to skip around a little bit if you must, and then read the last two poems last. 

The book is separated into four distinct sections: 1 – “Haruspex” (a person trained in animal divination) with poems setting the emotional tone for the rest of the work; 2 – “Starling”, which Joey describes as a deep dive into feelings about love and how love manifests; and the last two more emotionally complicated sections: 3 – “Hard Turn”, and 4 – “When I Was a Man.”

“Think of the first section as a threshold,” Joey says. “The middle two sections as the guts, and then the last section as the heart, so that you can know where you’re going with the book. You’re delving deeper into the feeling as you go through.”

One of the predominant themes of the work, and a thread that pulses throughout the book, is grief. Actual grief with the loss of those dear to the poet, grief of lost love and relationships that were once important, and in a way, grief that involves a transformation of old self into a new self. 

“I want the lasting feeling [of the book] to be the idea of the capability of words to help you through things,” Joey says. 

Joey wrote the final section “When I Was a Man” while visiting a friend in California after quitting a day job that had been a big part of their life for some time. The poems in this section were originally all part of one poem before being broken up into many different parts. They have a clean, dark candor to them that feels slightly different than the rest of the work. 

“I was sitting in a trailer writing these poems and they were very stark because I had just changed my life significantly,” Joey recalls. “And I thought to myself that there’s no flowery thing needed, this is already dramatic, and I want to get out of the way and let the poem be the drama.” 

In “[So Sue Wasn’t Feeling So Good That Morning]” Joey describes a day in which a coworker suddenly starts feeling poorly and Joey had to come to her aid.  

“I carried her to her car and she went to the doctor where she was diagnosed with cancer,” they recall, “I only saw her once after that and she was already on a ventilator.” 

Most of the poems in this section center around Joey’s mentor, their stepfather Frank, and the impact that relationship had on Joey while Frank was still alive. Many of these poems also feature construction as a theme, because Joey and Frank spent considerable time together renovating Joey’s mom’s house, but also connection, admiration, and grief. 

In “The First Day,” Joey describes how while they were staining posts they looked down at Frank wiring a light switch and Joey wrote “then I loved him,” the intricacy of the wires and the creation of the possibility for light causing the depth of emotion. 

Or in “What If the Wall Was My Stepfather’s Body,” Joey describes the connection between two “men” breathing into their industrial face masks and the solidarity that comes from doing hard labor together, but the solidarity is followed by a sharp disconnect where Frank “kept asking if there was a girl in my life” when Joey’s lover in the poem is male. 

When writing The Acute Avian Heart, Joey admits that the third section, “Hard Turn”, wasn’t supposed to contain the same overtones of grief that the rest of the book had. But fate had another plan. 

“It started as this investigation of sexuality,” Joey remembers, “and ended up taking a hard turn when the person I was writing a sex poem about committed suicide.” 

In “Hard Turn” Joey asks the reader: “is love so difficult?    duh/ but you phrased it as a question.” 

And the reader is swept up by the relatability all over again. 

The Acute Avian Heart is a book for anyone who has moved through anything difficult. It invites the reader to sit under a tree and look up to the branches and the sky beyond. Sometimes the birds are at rest and quiet, other times they will be raucous and chaotic, but whatever you birds or metaphors you find in those branches and in that, it will be exactly what you need in that moment.

A Sample from The Acute Avian Heart by Joey Gould

From The Acute Avian Heart by Joey Gould, 2019, Lily Poetry Review Press

Joey Gould’s beautiful work The Acute Avian Heart is available through the Lily Poetry Review Press. Click here to purchase a copy.

Joey Phoenix is a performance artist and the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore. If you have an idea for a story, feature, or pictures of adorable llamas, feel free to send them a message at joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com

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