Unholy Heart: New and Selected Poems by Grace Bauer. The Backwaters Press: An Imprint of the University of Nebraska Press. 2021. 169 pages. $19.95. Paperback.
New and selected poetry collections can sometimes be cumbersome when approaching any poet to experience their work. I always find that’s because we must figure out where to begin. With Unholy Heart: New and Selected Poems by Grace Bauer, it’s best to start at the beginning and move actively to the end. This collection surveys the body of Bauer’s work from early poems to new poems.
“Eve Recollecting the Garden” opens this volume of poetry as a meditation on the creation story. During my reading of Bauer’s collection, I kept returning to this Edenic exploration of Eve’s stolen voice, “Dolphin, Starling, Antelope / were syllables you stole / from me…” (3). Presumably speaking to Adam, Eve accuses him of literally stealing her words. Bauer gives Eve the voice many creation stories never seem to do and allows her space in which Eve’s truth is finally spoken. Thematically, Bauer’s opening poem resonates as true today as it had when it was first published.
In “Update on Emily,” the closing poem in this collection, Bauer’s voice becomes much softer and contemplative. Bauer slows down and works through the puzzling she presents to us. The poem opens with what could be taken as a harsh statement of inevitability, “Because Death stops for everyone / and is rarely ever kind, / she writes her letters to the world–– ” (166). The poem moves quickly into a rumination on the necessity of what it means to live a life. For the speaker, it’s the act of writing letters. However, the poem asks whether the letters will be important to Emily, or for the world. Bauer eventually comes to the conclusion-less realization that we end up the same either way because the letters exist at all.
Through the inverted mirror between the urgency of creation in the opening poem “Eve Recollecting the Garden” and the quiet contemplation of death in the final poem “Update on Emily,” Bauer bookends us in waiting. Unholy Heart: New and Selected Poems is a collection of believing that spans a career recording Bauer as a needed voice in poetry.
—Tyler Michael Jacobs, MAR