by Kendra Grant Malone
Scrambler Books 2011
Reviewed by Morgan Myers
“about how things could be / better”
Kendra Grant Malone’s Everything Is Quiet comes on a bit rough at first. There’s a lot of unfiltered emotion and uncapitalized letters, a lot of embarrassing confessions and idle chatter. Then you start to pick up the subtly controlled movements that underlie the artless surface, the way wildly divergent emotions are allowed to shade into and resolve one another—or not—without disturbing the poet’s eerie calm. And then you hit a title like “Don’t Misunderstand Me, Honey,” and suddenly you don’t misunderstand her—this little Irish hipster is singing the blues.
What makes this blues, rather than a lot of entitled millennial whining? For one thing, there’s the fact that Malone makes little claim for the validity or value of her feelings, or for her right to feel anything better. “Since i’ve left you / i’ve been feeling / depressed,” she might tell us, or “i like drinking / until i cannot see,” but there’s no apparent plea for sympathy or claim to victimhood. Depression or debauchery, loneliness or self-involvement, boredom or desperation, they’re all just there, for you to relate to or not.
Then there’s the fact that so much of the book is less about the poet herself than about the damaged people around her—an abused mother, a disabled brother, seemingly dozens of emotionally wounded friends and lovers—and about longing for her relationships with those people to be as sure and enduring as the feelings behind them. Moments of harrowing, helpless concern help to validate the moments of self-pity, and sometimes they’re the same moment—like in the emotional climax of “Spick,” a sequence of short poems worrying for the poet’s mentally ill adopted brother:
i’m not sure
how many more years
i can go on with this
being the only
apparently the only
the only one who loves
my dear brother
For all their emotionally charged content, these poems have a slightness and delicacy that might fill out seventeen syllables more easily than twelve bars. Malone can hide emotional landmines inside seemingly offhanded titles like “Little Used Up Tea Bags Cannot Sing, No, That Is a Silly Idea” or “I Suppose This Is Alright for the Time Being”—both of which become devastating in the context of their attached poems. These kinds of subterranean effects are easy to swamp, so Malone wisely restricts herself to one major gesture per poem, and thanks to that judicious minimalism they show through with something almost like elegance.
But the book is warmer, messier, and more welcoming than such restraint might suggest. Each poem feels like a struggle to make an honest connection with the reader, just like the struggles to connect that go on within the poems, so that the book’s publication expands Malone’s circle of sympathetic sufferers to include us as well. Whatever the song, Malone isn’t singing to break hearts so much as to console. “I will just keep seeing you all,” she promises, “and listening to your stories / about how things could be / better.”