Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kelle Groom’s “I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl”

Kelle Groom is a poet and memoirist. She is the author of three poetry collections: Five Kingdoms (Anhinga Press, 2010); Luckily (Anhinga, 2006); and Underwater City (University Press of Florida, 2004). Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2010, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Poetry, among others, and has received special mention in the Pushcart Prize 2010 and Best American Non-Required Reading 2007 anthologies.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, and reported the following:
In my memoir, page 99 is within the 16th chapter: “Broadway.” It’s 1984. Nearly two years since my son has died. I’m sober a few months and working in a health food store. This chapter marks a turn in the book from the alcoholic drinking, violence, and darkness of the earlier pages. The drive of the book is my desire to know what happened to my son in his brief life, to find him in whatever way is possible. In “Broadway,” my 22-year-old self starts to learn to live in the world. In the chapters that follow, I’m able to search for my son.

My friend Mike appears on page 99. Much of this chapter is devoted to him. Later in the memoir, I make reference to my inability to take action in my own life and to ask for help: “Mostly I am insensible of trees, their states and bruises, their lack of disguise. Their willingness to reach out for the things that keep them alive.” When I see Mike in a recovery meeting “I could swear a light opens up over his head, pours down. I could hear him.” I can’t bring myself to talk to anyone yet, but I want to live. With Mike, I don’t pretend to be okay. Night after night, he sits with me in the House of Pancakes, lets me talk for hours. One day, at a new job cutting limbs from trees, the chain saw falls on his neck, and he falls from a great height. He’s hurt terribly. Both arms broken, face smashed - it’s as if it slipped off or down, like a mask. Mike’s in the hospital, uninsured, for a month. On page 99, he’s been out for a few weeks.
Saturday night I picked him up, took him to the New England meeting. He’s tall, bony, with so many broken parts, I’m nervous helping him out of my small car. The pins in his head held in place with a kind of Frankenstein brace. I don’t want to jostle him, hurt him. I’m not used to helping anyone. Usually it seems as though anyone else would be better suited – whatever the task. But Mike actually needs me. There’s a place with nobody in it. The humidity makes his healing bones ache.

At home, I lay my head down on my humming typewriter, try to pick up some energy. That night I dream that a coworker who doesn’t like me gave me a quart of Wild Turkey. In the dream I drink three inches straight from the bottle.
Page 99 also has a scene that takes place in the health food store. In the memoir, my jobs help ground me, pull me through. My workplace is often both steadying and ridiculous, a source of companionship and humor:
At work, Carey comes over from the Winter Park store. We act out the diseases in the Back to Eden book, a guide to herbal medicines and home remedies. Take turns reading the symptoms until we had the diseases down pat. “Hysteria” and “hydrophobia” (caused by wolf or rat bite) are best. We walk down the aisles, and every time we find a product with water, we gag, sob, convulse, act out the “dread of water” contortions… The store manager does this Amazon strut in high heels and shoulder pads—heaving and slinging her cannonball breasts. Head up, chin out. The store hardly seems large enough for her. When the phone rings, she squeals Hello! with game show expectancy. At some point, she’ll grab me by the elbow…
View the trailer for I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, and learn more about the book and author at Kelle Groom's website.

--Marshal Zeringue