BOY by Tracy Youngblom

by Tracy Youngblom
CavanKerry Press, 2023
88 pages
Reviewed by Michael Collins

“We think a lot. But we can’t think / dead. So, we wait” (23), Tracy Youngblom writes in Boy, her sequence of elegies and meditations on a life’s journey with the memory of a brother who died as a small child. Though the individual poems capture unique insights into narrative microcosms, this work’s most generous offering is its presentation of a considered thought process on death and theodicy, arriving at the ongoing existential resilience that allowed the book’s own composition.

The meditation begins with the intuited need to pursue a theodicy for a god who “even when he’s not the agent / of our deaths, he already is” (8). Crucially, this thinking about god is complicated and moved forward by details of the traumatic experience itself:


I hadn’t been there
to see the fall, the fallen boy.

No way to undo that absence
or belong. My first grief

secondhand, borrowed. Suspect. (21)


Although speaking from personal context, this passage points toward important elements of grief per se, the guilt of surviving despite not bring able to save the deceased, the sense of unreality in their paradoxically ongoing presence. These feelings allow two interrelated conversations. First, she responds to god: “I know your game, / I prayed. I’ve been cheated” (27; italics original). Second, she maintains mental dialogue with her brother, even through the memory of his closed casket: “You were closed off / because your gauze-wrapped head /would have kept everyone / from prayer” (29). The speaker’s love for her brother continues beyond death to speak with him in absence. She was clearly taught to pray, and perhaps this practice validates such intuitive communication, yet the unfolding of the sequence indicates that her tenacious love of her brother may also have contributed to her ability to maintain any connection whatsoever with the god of her developing understanding, infusing the prayer with deepening honesty. Expression of anger in prayer is an act of faith.

In a negative way, the selfishly hurtful father also contributes to the speaker’s cultivation of personal faith. The inherited father-god conflation, made untenable for her by his self-involvement, organically deconstructs itself in narrative details. However, in the process, the speaker cultivates an understanding of him as a person that opens to a compassionate understanding of humanity:


We do not

blame the moon, which appears
to brighten the sky by itself.

We know better. It is the same
with our father, as incapable

of generating his own light
as we are of looking away. (32)


On the one hand, this withering of artificial authority seems to open the speaker’s perception to hearing abundant life speak for itself:


my little sister exclaiming,
We’re rich! We laugh because

it’s not true, because the truth
is so plain: the world pulses

outside the window: apple blossoms
and robins and a yard

that needs mowing. All this.
Whether or not we close

our eyes to it. (39; italics original)


The sister expresses a contagiously spontaneous joy in response to the world that can be a lasting component of prayer. Importantly, relationships are also the medium for prayers being answered in the form of correction, here from the mother’s response to a grief-releasing temper tantrum:


She gripped my shoulders, spoke
words that struck like
a slap from which I recoiled,
that made me raise my chin to defiant
heights in response—words
so true it hurt to deny them:
I miss him too
. (42)


The “insight” here is not an abstract psudeo-spiritual compensation for loss but part of an interactive process of authentically grieving. In a different way from the sister, the mother both models and answers prayer, intuitively and relationally.

The forms of prayer that result from these reflections resemble the complex, emotionally aware – often beautiful – creations we call poems. The two practices seem to inform – and even interrupt – one another:


I imagine: those bumps—one step

at a time—the fatal one—and your

breaths at the last—not gasps—
a steady slowing, the body as it wades

in water, the water like hands stroking

the skin—so death would have been
gentle. Dear God, here’s futility:

thinking like this: pretending
I am talking to you and not

expecting an answer. (15-6)


The syntax is quietly demonstrative, the colons extending fragments of thought that continue to reach out to a god who doesn’t respond immediately or directly, even while expressing the existential loneliness of addressing an apparent absence. However, subsequent addresses to the brother provide more imaginative openness:


Maybe you exist in an earlier

earlier, seeing us as we were
before you arrived, how your shape

shaped us, then seeing your own
trajectory from seed to child

to present—separate and distant
from us—as if your movement

toward God made you
indistinguishable from Him. (53)


This passage is from “Aristotle said,” a section that models how responding to others’ thought may invigorate reflection. Perhaps this new kind of engagement helps to complicate prayer, such that the conflation of the lost person with the internal sense of god allows the relationships with both to deepen. Consciousness wants to move; one wisdom of god is a flexible partner to such movements.

Its intellectual sparks and nuances notwithstanding, the book models a fundamentally grounded and grounding view of spiritual – and poetic – practice: “Pray with / your eyes open, alert to nuances / of visitation, and greet them not / with hope, but suspicion” (58). Nevertheless, a paradoxically child-infused sense of improvisational life thrives within this protection, as shown in the exploration of “playing Scrabble / with God.” The complex metaphor of engaging with god, not only in play, but specifically in a word game balances the poet’s awareness of her own creative and spiritual constraints with the child’s intuitive response, which resonates with corresponding depth and resilience:


Sometimes I manage
five-letter creations—heavy

or break—or bend His rules
by rearranging His letters

instead: sway or err or even.
Often, out of time and luck,

I spell the simple, expected Yes. (81)