Unmanly Grief intersperses narratives of the body’s specificity, vulnerability, and perseverance with feats of lyrical reflection and music enough to bridge the gap between the personal and shared nature of those narratives. The tension between the stories of the poems (grounded in family, work, place) and what can be made of such reverent, yet unflinching observation gives the poems their power. There’s grounding in detail, voice, and careful observation, but also room, occasion, and audacity enough to leap from boxing to roofing to Hamlet and back.
Jess Williard’s powerful debut sings the stories of the workaday world into the realm of the epic. With a vision that moves beautifully between the horrific and the sublime, and voice that yawps as brightly as it yearns, Williard’s poetry moves us to take a second look at the fringes and see both “the battered and battering” among us. Self-deprecatory and sometimes ashamed, elegiac and often celebratory, these poems dance around the poet’s own eloquent question: “Measured against the beautiful-/brained and impermanent, how can we not be a little grotesque?
In Unmanly Grief, the pale apostles of youth lead us through a childhood of corn and cement. Jess Williard shows how quiet some violences can be, how our incorrect heaven communicates through bats and waves, as well as what to believe in—the low pools of mourning where “formal nouns will stack their spines on any ground”. This book knows the before and after of loves that don’t ask us to hurt for them; this book is that kind of love, the kind you keep.
Populated with roofers and prize fighters, waitresses and work-release cons, Jess Williard’s moving debut, Unmanly Grief, is a journey into an unsung and often unseen America—and a love song to all those working just to get by. Here are poems of the people, told not in the elevated register of so much poetry, but in the rough and beautiful, guttural music of plain speech.