May Day, by Gretchen Marquette

Runestone, Volume 3

may day

May Day
Gretchen Marquette

Graywolf Press

May, 2016

ISBN 9781555977399

96 pages

Reviewed by McKinley Johnson

May Day is the first collection of poems by local Minneapolis poet and Hamline graduate Gretchen Marquette. Marquette delves into some of the most personal and poignant moments of loss in her life, echoing feelings that are familiar in all people. There is a vulnerability in her prose that is ever-present, but not brazen. Marquette is behind every word in her poems, but she allows the reader into her space, making this book much more of a conversation than a piece to look at and admire.

The collection is broken into five parts, and each works in concert, but can also be read on its own, like a vignette. The sections aren’t separated neatly by chronology but grouped by themes, jumping back and forth in a way that is reminiscent of the way one might tell a story to a stranger. Marquette fills us in as she goes along, remembering bits of funny stories or images stuck in her head, to help make sense of where she’s coming from.

There are poems where the personality of the writer begins to leak out and we see more of the person behind the poem. “S = klog W“ is a poem that creates its own form and can be read four different ways, as the first few lines show:

when he enters                        smell of his breath                   there it is
inside everything                     burned sugar                            skin of his wrist
fingers split                               an orange                                  remembers

The fact that any of these four readings holds the emotional core of this piece intact, however, is what makes this mastery. Never does Marquette waver or shy away from the hurtful subjects, or the fearful.

In “Dear Gretel,” we see the folk story superimposed on the image of the author and her brother. The desire to protect her little brother, who has gone to war in Afghanistan, from harm by any means necessary becomes an overwhelming drive in that carries her into the present, even as she feels powerless to help or protect him:

Was it relief you breathed,
or did you keep your fear, introduce it
to thin ice, unstable rock,
opaque water. Did you always wince,
afterward, watching him dive?

Past and memory, the future and dreams, and the present and grief are six themes that emerge from the pages of Mayday. Marquette deftly maneuvers readers around her memories and the trauma of broken relationships with the grace of a dancer. It is that deft hand with tender emotion that left me feeling that this book is a treasure to add to any bookshelf. What Marquette does in this book is grounding. Taken in small sections or in its entirety, May Day should be a book standing next to your copies of Lorca and Whitman.


Hamline University

McKinley Johnson is a senior hovering above graduation with plans to teach overseas and dreams to become a writer the likes of Bao Phi and such, but for now he’ll settle for making his deadlines.

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