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A Teasing Reminder of What Always Was: A Review of Benjamin Gucciardi’s West Portal

By Tryphena Yeboah

We can convince ourselves that what’s gone is lost forever, utterly erupted from our lives, and yet, here are poems that move through time and guide us carefully through tunnels of memory. With its reach for those who are no more, its sincere curiosity about the afterlife, Benjamin Gucciardi’s West Portal (University of Utah Press, 2021), winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize, is filled with soulful poems of connection and meditation where attention is given to the departure from earth and the beauty that persists after such loss. The poems are structured around a speaker who communicates with their dead sister, and the absence almost forces them to find the gaps in language, to carve out a path into another realm—an entryway into the world after.

Many know the deep grief and shock of parting ways with the dead, and when Gucciardi writes about the experience, it is in a manner that draws our attention to what we’re likely to miss. For instance, in “Advice to Pallbearers,” the speaker instructs on the need for silence and the tenderness required in carrying a coffin. They shouldn’t attract undue attention at funerals, and yet, because of what they carry, Gucciardi finds it fit to focus on the pallbearers to emphasize the value of what they have in their possession. He writes: “Before you handle the casket,/borrow your mother’s finest crystal/vase, carry it through the crowded parking lot/ to the water park, ride the slides./ Let nothing shatter.” By drawing on what the pallbearers will deem priceless, the speaker transfers this value to their own relationship to the dead, urging them to protect it. In a single moment, and with such rich detail of movement and sound, we glimpse a plea for tenderness, mindfulness, and total devotion for the dead.

This honor the speaker gives to the dead is woven in the themes of loss, the close witnessing of accidents, and grief-stricken childhood memories that are consistent in the book. Gucciardi employs a visual and tactile quality in describing these events, inviting the reader to partake in this private experience of mourning.

In “Masa,” when the speaker feels their sister’s ashes, we’re pulled into the surprising element of texture—the hope that the ashes would be perhaps clumpy and “milled free from her figure.” But instead, what they discover when they cup a handful of ashes is startling, and Gucciardi’s description is evocative and so vivid, pulling together what is likely a story on the cause of death:

I meet flame’s laziness—

Two triangles of bone
intact among the powder—
a vertebrae’s corner?
Her middle phalanx

that steadied the blade
she pulled across her wrist?

Through this contemplation on the sister's suicidal act and her inscrutable remains, a sincere inquiry takes place, an attempt to make sense of what was left. From a bone that survives the furnace, the speaker hints at a significant detail of self-harm. The poem holds the tension between grief and remembrance well and, with lucid imagery, invites the reader to easily partake in this unusual process. Even more striking is how it proceeds to merge with a childhood memory as the speaker suggests the bone could also be objects from their past: arrowheads from cornfields, sails of a toy ship they captained in a tub—Gucciardi executes this slip between moments excellently, and the message it conveys is a memorable one. The poem’s careful and slow travel through time leads somewhere after all: a place where the ones who have departed still exist in moments that are alive to us; they’re tucked away in fragments of memories, sometimes sharpened over time, ready to startle us with their presence, a teasing reminder of what always was.

In “Hunting Chanterelles in the Oakland Hills,” Gucciardi writes, “It is not only trauma which cleaves—the soul also fractures in joy.” Indeed, these are poems that leave the reader charged with hope and open to the delightful pleasures of living, even in the face of loss. A speaker’s imagination is what bridges the distance between the self and a ghost, and the conversations that take place are not an outburst, not a loud declaration but a reach into the darkness to sing. It is an invitation to a landscape that, while it speaks of dying and death, its words are marked in living and life, brimming with the kind of curiosity that shakes off human indifference and provokes our sensibilities. Benjamin Gucciardi has crafted these stirring poems with great acknowledgment of emotional affliction and the human capacity to carry one’s lot and yield; he has succeeded in conveying, with much clarity and precision, the inner psyche and its response to the harrowing mysteries of life.

Tryphena Yeboah is the author of the chapbook A Mouthful of Home, selected by the African Poetry Book Fund. Her stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine and Commonwealth Writers, among others. She lives in Lincoln, where she’s teaching and pursuing a doctorate in English, with a focus on Creative Writing.
Benjamin Gucciardi's poems appear in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Best New Poets, Harvard Review, Orion Magazine and elsewhere, and have been featured in Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. He has received the James Dickey Poetry Prize from Five Points, the Booth Prize for Unexpected Literature, the Milton Kessler Memorial Prize from Harpur Palate, the Long Story Prize from Iron Horse Literary Review and a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize, as well as awards from the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Jentel Foundation, PLAYA and Artsmith.