Green Hills Literary Lantern

Review

 

 

Behind Every Door by Terry Godbey.  (Winner of the 2006 Slipstream Poetry Chapbook Competition).  Slipstream Publications, PO Box 2071, Niagara Falls, NY 14301.  39pp.  $7.00. 

 

After an initial reading of Terry Godbey’s chapbook, “Behind Every Door,” I was slightly unnerved by what I felt to be its simplicity.  The form Godbey uses in her poetry, for instance, is quite straightforward.  She does not experiment greatly with stanza breaks or variations in structure, but rather unfolds her poems simply and unpretentiously.  Each of the thirty poems is written in free verse and all are relatively the same length, ranging from about twenty to forty lines.  However, you should not be fooled by the appearance of form; the profundity of Godbey’s poems lies in their content.  Godbey is not an author to be read once and then dismissed, but rather her poetry requires careful, multiple readings.  Only then will the reader adequately appreciate her subtlety with humor, graceful use of language, and thoughtful commentary on what is truly important in life.   

Godbey’s chapbook gives her readers an insightful look into brief snapshots of her life, drawing meaning and larger significance from what we may label as commonplace moments.  However, it is the ordinary nature of these moments which makes her poetry accessible to her audience, allowing us to discover greater truths applicable to ourselves in what Godbey is revealing about her own life. 

Godbey begins the chapbook with a poem about her childhood, entitled “Beauty Lessons at 12.”  From the first line on, I felt as though I were entering a dream-world (consistent with the nature of childhood memories) in which the cares of outside life are forgotten.  As a girl on the verge of womanhood, Godbey feels honored to be made a part of a compassionate sanctuary of women—her aunt’s beauty parlor.  In the male-dominated world of what I imagined to be the 1960s or ‘70s, Godbey revels in this oasis of female strength and companionship.  She remembers, “Talk often melted into laughter/or whispers, but strength and sex swirled/like clouds of Aqua Net.”  Such vivid imagery also gives this poem a dream-like quality, as when she speaks of her cousin who “would whisk me into her whirling chair.”  Godbey’s gentle and soothing alliteration lulls us into the restful rhythm of her writing, allowing us the same feelings of comfort and tranquility that she experienced in the beauty shop.

In sharp contrast to her feelings of security and comfort expressed in “Beauty Lessons at 12,” Godbey’s childhood innocence is far from intact as we see from her disturbing poem, “And the Neighbors Never Heard a Thing.”  She tells her experience in an abusive relationship with a haunting, matter-of-fact style.  Strong emotional language is not necessary for the reader to understand the terror and helplessness that lies behind her words.  For instance, she tells us that he “lurks in the second of silence/after the wrong number.”  Although not emotional or image-laden, this detail is strong and poignant because it illustrates Godbey’s helplessness and also the sheer eeriness of the situation.  While instances of lost innocence often occur at the end of childhood when one is in the process of maturation, Godbey shows us that adults are not exempt from such painful realizations.  We are left with the image of “the phone on the wall/swinging on its cord,” as if to say that no one is there to help her now; she is an adult in a frightening situation and she is forced to face it alone.       

In the poem, “Eight Years Old,” Godbey brings us back to the more innocent time of childhood—not her own, however, but that of her son.  There is a beautiful flow to her words and design of her poem, once again giving us that smooth and tranquil feeling similar to “Beauty Lessons at 12.”  Godbey’s imagery in this poem is vivid, unique, and perfectly chosen as support for her ideas.  She compares her son’s skin to “bolts of wedding satin,” which implies not only the flawless innocence found in youth, but also alludes to the purity and innocence associated with a bride.  Godbey says, “He is lush,/toes pink and curled/as the pearly hearts of seashells,” a creative image that suits the pure and simple nature of her son’s childhood.   She craves his youth—to have that innocence again.  She observes her son at eight years old and longs to be a new person, in both body and mind, clear of imperfections.  Toward the end of her poem, Godbey compares his arms to “clock hands gone wild,” perhaps insinuating that the young possess the ability to mock time and its effects, merely living in the moment, a quality frequently lost on many adults.  Youth is a time that is so fleeting; soon there will be adolescence with peer pressure and irresponsibility, followed by adulthood and the hardship of facing difficult realities.

While on the subject of adolescence and irresponsibility, Godbey does not neglect her years as a teenager in her poetry, with her work, “One Can of Corn” serving as a very honest and vivid example of this time in her life.  She utilizes a terse, choppy writing style, indicating the chaotic and inconsistent nature of young adulthood, while at the same time uses appealing imagery to attract the reader.  In this way, Godbey is making the statement that being young is about contrasts; it’s about struggle and bad choices and good times.  Teenagers are caught between childhood and adulthood, in a vague limbo where nothing is clear.  “Fired from my typing job, I perfected my tan/while she swept sand from mildewed motel rooms/for pot and speed handed over by men/enamored of her cinnamon calves.”  From this line, we are able to see the holy trinity of Godbey’s wild youth:  poverty, drugs, and men.  She seamlessly flows between images of poverty and abundance, however, when she describes how she and her best friend are able to “snag” men and get them to provide their “forgotten dinners.”  Godbey presents images of true plentitude and excess, describing “cherries impaled on swords,/baked potatoes dripping butter,/steaks that left red rings/on our plates.”  Despite Godbey’s rebellious and carefree adolescence, “One Can of Corn” is not the lease bit didactic in its message—Godbey is unapologetic regarding the choices she made, and merely presents them to the reader.  She obviously diverted from this lifestyle, however, judging from other poems within this chapbook, but she shows no regret for her choices made at nineteen.  For Godbey, this was yet another stage in life that taught her about herself, even though she clearly believed that it was not meant to last forever.    

Throughout “Behind Every Door,” we see frequent contrasts between innocence and experience.  Poems like “And the Neighbors Never Heard a Thing” and “One Can of Corn” illustrate Godbey’s point that there is a time in everyone’s life when innocence is no longer an option, and real life finds its way in.  She also acknowledges that accepting reality is difficult and we often grasp at elements of the past in an attempt to hold on to something comfortable and familiar.  Godbey uses “Eight Years Old” to demonstrate this point, showing her own discomfort with getting older and the awe she feels regarding her son’s youthful perfection.  “Beauty Lessons at 12” can also be seen as an escape for Godbey, back to simpler times when sitting in a beauty parlor with affable women was all she needed to be happy. 

The patterns in Godbey’s poetry show a distinct cycle through the stages of life.  She writes about her innocent childhood, her rebellious adolescence, her complex and confused adulthood, and then begins the cycle again with her son’s innocent childhood.  The moments she captures are the true moments of life—what we go through and what we learn.  Now we are perhaps meant to ask, regarding our own lives as well as the open-ended nature of the chapbook, what lies ahead?  What will be different about the cycle that Godbey’s son will go through, and how will she affect it?  I believe that Godbey is urging us to see that behind every door and within every person there lies a struggle between past and present, innocence and experience, which we all need to understand and explore.  Only then can we consciously affect how the cycle will continue, in our own lives as well as for the coming generations. 

 

 

Kate Browne is from St. Louis, Missouri and is currently an English student at Truman State University.  She has been working with Dr. Joe Benevento as Associate Poetry Editor for GHLL, and will pursue a career in publishing/editing after graduation.