Eileen G’Sell’s Life After Rugby is a delectable debut collection. These poems are swift, smart, and eager—at times plainly written and at other times leaping through associations via sound, image, reference, and even a little wilderness. These poems give immediate pleasure in their sonic and playful resonances, but this book is far more than a treat; and it deserves to be savored. The more you sit with these poems, the more they show their multivalence as they explore the complexities of our fast-paced, media-saturated 21st century. Beneath its sleek surface, this collection eschews simple answers through an unabashed flair for “Hawaiian-flowered logic” (8).
Brain Blanchfield once said that a poem is about something the way a cat is about the room. Life After Rugby moves like a (sometimes mischievous) cat flitting around the corners of themes worn well enough—loss, love, spectacle, gender binaries—that they would fall flat or swell sentimental in most hands. This collection moves “more Venn than Zen,” suggesting the messy intersections of these elements that merge the personal, the political, the quotidian—even, daringly, “the world”—branching like tree limbs, outward, reaching toward and interrogating fundamental truths in evocative and often playful ways (33).
Beneath its sleek surface, this collection eschews simple answers through an unabashed flair for “Hawaiian-flowered logic.”
G’Sell’s sensibility embraces playful aphorisms, indulges in wit. This is a landscape where Camus comes out of a coma calling everything “adorable,” where “attentions / [are] coolly divided between a hunger / for truth and a taste for toppings” (7, 5). But these moments accumulate into more than just the reader’s audible snickers in public spaces. By the end of the book, G’Sell forces us to revise our understanding of these lighthearted moments: “I have made light of many things / and that’s why we can see in here” (74). These last lines of the collection are felt, immediately, as true. G’Sell’s use of language illuminates the everyday objects and cultural icons and flippant lifestyles that permeate our collective conscious. She turns on the light in our chaotically moving world so that we can see it anew, and she does so not merely with humor, but with a deft rendering of language as visibly pliable.
G’Sell twists language as a malleable material not merely to be clever, for the spectacle of what language can do—though, at times, there is indulgence in language’s possibilities: “Take the ‘O’ out of poet and you have a little pet. Tack a ‘B’ onto itch and your skin calms down. When I stray, eat the ‘R’ with your finest silver. When I slide, slip the ‘L’ in a crystal flute, and then try to discern which one to land on” (21). Each slip into playful banter, in the context of the book, culminates into much more: the possibility of reshaping our individual and societal spheres, that agency with which we could confront the world (but so often do not). This is levity with gravity. Irreverence with clear, sharp intent.
One intent of this collection is to interrogate the spectacle of destruction, a preoccupation shown most clearly in the title poem, which is situated near the middle of the collection, the hinge. “Life After Rugby,” as the title suggests, takes on the afterlife of “the game,” the spectacle of an aggressive sport, which turns into the spectacle of one falling from one’s pinnacle. This is the moment one realizes they have squandered “the handsomest months of a life” and succumbs to simply wasting “one’s day, // one’s valid ticket, on the leanest bit of woe” (35, 27). The sequence begins rooted in the “she” and then stretches out, shifting in pronouns (I, you, she) and further abstracts into a sense of regret and display of violence. The long poem ends with an echo of the book’s references to the “heavyweight” Mike Tyson, and by extension, other celebrities past their prime that the collection takes on. As the camera shoots the falling hero (“Shutter / Shutter / Shutter / Shutter”), we hear the sonic echo of “shudder,” the metaphor of being shot, penetrated by the camera’s light, while the “whole world” relentlessly watches (35).
This collection indicts and questions our voyeuristic inclination rather than participating in it. “I refuse to make this beautiful,” one speaker protests, and we can hear the poet ruminating on the artistic endeavor itself, the method of pulling at the “sweet seam [of] sadness” to create art that evokes (17). G’Sell comments on the line “I refuse to make this beautiful,” in an interview with The Rumpus, revealing that it originated after watching the film A Thin Red Line: “I remember watching this gorgeous crane shot of the battlefield, and I thought, He’s making this beautiful, he’s making the suffering beautiful.” G’Sell does not strive to make this collection “beautiful” in the traditional lyric sense (though there are lines of striking images, of beauty); it aims to grapple with the aestheticization of violence and destruction without slipping into the same approach.
One intent of this collection is to interrogate the spectacle of destruction, a preoccupation shown most clearly in the title poem, which is situated near the middle of the collection, the hinge. “Life After Rugby,” as the title suggests, takes on the afterlife of “the game,” the spectacle of an aggressive sport, which turns into the spectacle of one falling from one’s pinnacle.
The book’s preoccupation with the spectacle of destruction is particularly interested in how this phenomenon intersects with performances of gender. In “The Hit,” we survey the devastated body of an actress after a car crash: “A weirdness all the town slowed down to know,” a female in complete ruin (18). Shortly after, we receive “Whitney Houston Pronounced Dead at 48,” a title that speaks to the devastating downward spiral of Houston’s life. Yet the poem itself avoids engaging in that spectacle of ruin and instead elegizes with homage (“clouds as profile [. . . ] the whole sky sighs soprano”) that sincerely laments: “Your sweat, your smile, your always always / never, all at once” (24).
G’Sell’s long interest in film and cultural criticism comes into play in Life After Rugby, which nods toward the narratives of celebrities and cinema, itself bobbing and weaving through narrative structures at times, especially in the prose poems. The narrative and cinematic tropes expand the narrative implied in the collection’s title—the post-climactic moment, the falling resolution, of both the individual citizen and the society itself. Through the critique of a society obsessed with the spectacle of destruction, we can see that society itself spiraling down. The arc of the collection is far from a linear narrative, but the later poems, after “After Rugby,” accumulate the weight of the collection’s underlying themes. In a poem near the end of the collection, daringly called “The World,” we see our world as “A world replete. with bad things happening, repeating / themselves like a cotton rose” (67). This is the world of so many falling in real deaths, seen and unseen: “a man dies quiet and another / dies loud, a boy lies dead for more than four hours”—a gripping reference to Michael Brown’s horrifying death (G’Sell lives in St. Louis, just outside of Ferguson). This is where our narrative has taken us: “the world we / shower with lies […] is the whitest / world one can painfully know. Let us rise / as much in rhyme as risk. Let us scare ourselves / with this world on loan, our world we eat / and love and shame” (67). This collection reminds us of what we own, and do not—the true cost of what we cannot afford.
The narrative and cinematic tropes expand the narrative implied in the collection’s title—the post-climactic moment, the falling resolution, of both the individual citizen and the society itself.
There is also the historical narrative of gender performance, that spectacle. In a feminist review of Glow (in Salon), G’Sell writes: “gendered expression relies on the success of performative acts that are, thankfully, almost never absolute.” We encounter the interrogation of gendered binaries, the narrative we have built around them via assumptions, before we even encounter the first poem: the cover’s display of a ballerina leaning back into the aggressive “Rugby” of the title and then the double epigraph of Simone Weil (on beauty’s capacity to be destroyed) and Mike Tyson (the destroyer, the fighter). “Ode to Mike Tyson” seamlessly merges appropriation from Tyson and Mina Loy, and throughout the collection we see the two gender poles shifting and merging, showing not only their obvious intersections but also our not-so-obvious assumptions that still exist. In the title poem, we get the fabulous inversion of the female not as the one physically entered (the literal reality of heterosexual intercourse), but the invader: “She had [ … ] a silly way of sneezing. You’d know it / if she snuck inside your hole. She’d like it / if the whole place surged with light” (26). This, again, is G’Sell making “light of […] things” so that “we can see in here” (74). And here we see the female body recasting the narrative of gender with not just an irreverent shrug (“‘Whatev,’ she said, and cocked her head”) but with the capacity to control, as we see in “Drive”: “I was never your slushbox beautiful nothing I was agency movement clutch clutch clutch I was 500 hp gold and you know it” (57). The collection ends by driving forward, into a new beginning, past the “after” in “Life After Rugby,” toward one’s own agency over the future, a future where power-related connotations of gender break down, and where the “Real Bitch” is the heavyweight (12).
As the screenwriter Syd Field says, every end is really a beginning. This collection, “surged with light,” ends by tugging us back to its beginning in the way that only knockout collections manage to do.