Sylvia Cavanaugh: The Velocity of Love
Kathryn Gahl’s latest collection of poetry, THE VELOCITY OF LOVE (96 pages), published in 2020 and available for $20 from Water’s Edge Press, 615 South Pier Street, Sheboygan Wisconsin 53081 (watersedgepress.com), represents an act of courage from an accomplished writer. Gahl wades into the themes of love and excruciating loss in mothers’ lives, gently bringing the reader with her. In writing this collection of poems as love notes to her deceased grandson, Kathryn Gahl speaks with a grace born of pain, of witness to the joys and struggles of her adult daughter, of her own path to recovery and of her recognition and celebration of the expansiveness of the human spirit.
With dual degrees in English and nursing, Gahl is uniquely situated to express in poetry the broad spectrum of human experience, from the transcendent to the personally painful. She has studied writing at Bread Loaf, Vermont College, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Fiction Intensive, the Iowa Summer Festival, and elsewhere. Her multi-genre works have won awards, including the prestigious Niedecker Poetry Award, as well as recognition from Chautauqua, Glimmer Train, and Wisconsin People and Ideas.
The Velocity of Love opens “At Whistling Straights” (p.1), where the poet recounts a springtime family gathering when her daughter announces that she is pregnant. The poet reacts to this news with suddenly/gaiety tumbles from heaven/a wisp of winter/glorious snow. Gahl is adept at allowing the seasons to speak their own language, and she captures the thrill of winter, the season in which the child will be born. Winter can have another connotation, unmentioned, but makes me wonder, perhaps, whether the future will not be all joy and sparkle. In “This, I Believe, Is What You Are Telling Me” (p. 79), Gahl asks readers to favor circles over straight lines; that is what this collection of poems does. Time, experience, and even love, are not exactly linear.
Kathryn Gahl is deft with words and images that say more than what is on the page. In “What I Know and What I Want to Know” (p.41), the poet imagines her own death in a striking skeletal image, and later muses on whether her bones will live on in the gait of her grandchild:
When the neck of time snaps
and paralyzes me
like your great grandmother…
and always we shall remember
when you learned to walk
how you lifted your butt,
the foot, the heel
and felt the shift to the other hip—
you inherited my walk.
Although the poems in this collection are ostensibly written to a young child, and they indeed often come across that way, they also play with language in a way the adult reader will relish. For example, note the use of sound in “Entrance” (p.39). Here, too, Gahl marries the wonders of the natural world, the magic of photosynthesis, to the human drive to record and express one’s experiences.
One day I will teach you
I will teach you to take a photo
and synthesize it with music,
Convert sunlight into sustenance.
Likewise, we see a play of language and sound in “Her Room” (p.2), where the poet muses on an iris in her pregnant daughter’s room with, gracing her room/dreamily/abloom/reflecting the cosmos/the crayons to come. In “Nighttime” (p.3), the sounds sing as in:
swimming in your mother’s
warm water pool
a floating lotus
a tiny light spinning
in the night sky
Although the pregnancy and the birth of the grandchild results in unabashed joy for the grandmother, she also notes the struggles of her daughter - reminding me of my own struggles as a new mother - weariness, depression, and the arguments. There is also economic stress as in this, from “Complaint Department” (p. 26),
Your mother has taken
about a crib, stroller,
the high cost of diapers,
car seats, a high chair
This collection of poems forms an arc from anticipation of birth to realization to loss to healing. The book cover conveys this final message quite well, with art-photography by Jamie Heiden, depicting an older woman clasping a pale umbrella with both hands while swept off her feet to ascend into a sky of subtle golden-edged clouds surrounding a distant patch of blue.
Through the alchemy of love, loss, and poetry, Gahl brings us with her to the other side of tragedy and together we ascend to that lofty patch of blue. In “And Then…”(p.80), an unendurable loss is transmuted to a universalizing joy when the poet sees her grandchild’s face in the moon as it emerges from a jagged dark sky:
and then…an opening…
lacy clouds move
the moon into full face, your face—
cocoa eyes and fat glad cheeks
that vast smile of yours
of my heart
to let in dark
and bend it light
The Velocity of Love leaves one with a sense of wonder over how personal tragedy can yield a universalizing love. One is also left in awe that so few words, modestly justified left, can convey the huge, messy, joyful, and sometimes, wrenching, experience of generational motherhood.
About the Author: Sylvia Cavanaugh, a teacher and Pushcart Prize nominee, has published three chapbooks and her poetry has appeared in various periodicals and anthologies. She is a contributing editor for Verse-Virtual: An Online Community of Poets and is English Language Editor for Poetry Hall: A Chinese and English Bilingual Journal.