Book Review

Though Marybeth Holleman is the author of several nonfiction books centering around environmental issues and her chosen home of Alaska, tender gravity is her debut collection of poetry. Its title is drawn from its opening poem, “The Beating Heart, Minus Gravity,” wherein the speaker experiences a dream, or perhaps a nightmare, of “diving / to the blue depth” and then rising:


golden sunlight glinting above

but never reaching

no matter how hard i kick

the tender gravity of air

In this endless climb toward a necessary breath, and in many more poems within the collection, we sense desperation. tender gravity is a book concerned with the Earth, and more specifically humanity’s increasing disconnection from the ailing planet, our blatant lack of awe. In fact, the phrase “tender gravity” may also nod to the way that Holleman wishes we would walk through the world with a lighter and more attentive, intentional tread. She speaks directly to this idea in the five-poem cycle “Want,” which tells the story of a group kayaking trip to an Alaskan glacier. The “want” exudes from the kayakers, for whom this trip is a kind of pilgrimage to rediscover wilderness and themselves.

              We want
passage. Passage
into another kind of life, one not
encumbered by the little dramas
we create to believe our lives
are worth something more than
every single breath.

The speaker doesn’t separate herself from this sense of want, calling herself a “heavy-footed intruder” in a world she aches to feel a deep connection to. Throughout the kayak trip, the unnamed kayakers continue to want, to will something specific from nature, but “time and tides / urge us onward” and do not heed their desires in the least.

In a similar spirit, consider “Bright Sungrazing Comet II”:

I wanted only dark’s truth
that everything under the sun
comes and goes with no concern
for our confusing dramas . . .

Again and again Holleman interrogates humanity’s preoccupation with itself, panning out to remind us that the larger world does not bother itself over these momentary matters.

However, there is also a delicate emotional undercurrent running through tender gravity—Holleman is not simply reminding us about the death of glaciers and the warming of the planet. Gradually the poet permits a small glimpse into a personal tragedy—the loss of her brother, a victim of gun violence—and it becomes clear that she is taking solace in this larger sense of cosmic indifference. When her grief overwhelms her, she appears to be consoled by the idea that the planet will keep on turning—and not only will Earth forget her pain before she will, but in fact it never cared in the first place. In the poem “December 21, 2016,” the speaker attends a geology lecture about a 1912 volcanic eruption because she finds herself “reeling with wanting some sense”:

The scientist begins with history and I am restless:

I do not want to hear human dramas interpret the landscape.
I want rock-hard truth: the kind ancient stone holds:

I want to revel in the ground that carries a story infinitely older than us.
Older than greed, anger, hate. Older than insanity.
Finally the story moves beyond us . . .

Ultimately, tender gravity does not teem with “greed, anger, hate,” but with unspeakable grief. For me, the central poem is “the faint white curve of the moon,” another poem dealing with the world’s cold indifference (“what is there to say / that would matter / to the moon”), but one in which Holleman addresses her more intimate concerns—her “human dramas,” as she might call them—head-on, as though all along she had been building the courage to do so.

when my brother was murdered,
suddenly i did not fear death,
thought i’d been forced
to ease my chokehold on life.
but it was a temporary grace,
flashover that numbed pain,
jolt born of life’s own grip,

so the death of eleven white bears
sears through me like a white hot sword
now that I know the pattern of grief
the endless
pattern of grief.

tender gravity is divided into three sections. The first introduces the concepts of our harm to the planet and the poet’s wish to remove herself from that damage, while the second section looks at her personal grief head-on. In the final section, Holleman introduces a clear optimism—we can redeem ourselves, we can heal, if we can put our egos aside. The first poem in this final section, “Yesterday, on the familiar trail,” describes a routine, meditative walk and ends with this revelation:

It’s you,

with your thousand and one concepts, who must
step back toward that joy-sap rising, step back
into the only world that is.

These final poems do not turn fully away from grief, but rather they temper grief with hope. The poet’s lost brother still appears, but in a way that feels nostalgic. There is even a reframing of our relationship to the planet, as in the prose poem “Not the Moon”:

                                                       I sit stock still, snow cold seeping, and try to
feel how it is not the moon lifting up into view but us, this Earth, that is slowly
spinning. For a moment, for a halfmoment, I do sense that I am turning, enough
to grow dizzy and touch fear, brief as cloud wisp, of falling off, away, into stars.
It is too much . . .

Holleman shows us—or finds for herself—a new perspective at the moment when the reader needs it most. tender gravity’s final poems are rife with gratitude for simply existing in a gorgeous world. Hearkening back to her opening poem, in which the speaker can never reach the breath of air she needs, Holleman closes on a poem called “52,” ending both the poem and the collection with well-earned relief and promise:

                You stand on your 52
bones and lean back, your body
weaving the sign of infinity into
the welcoming air.

About the Reviewer

Erica Reid lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. She earned her MFA at Western Colorado University (‘22) and serves as assistant editor at THINK Journal. In 2022 she was nominated for Best New Poets and a Pushcart Prize.