Exhortation: A Review of Live in Suspense by David Groff

Reviewed by Aline Soules 

Live in Suspense
by David Groff
Trio House Press
July 2023, Paperback, 106 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1949487152101 p

In this collection, the reader is reminded of the momentary and ephemeral nature of life, even as the poet faces that life with clarity and acceptance.

The title, Live in Suspense, is an exhortation, a demand that we live in suspense as he attempts to do. He explores suspense as an artefact, quoting Emily Dickinson and Oscar Wilde, Dickinson emphasizing the unending nature of suspense and the contrast of “annihilation” and “immortality,” Wilde calling suspense “terrible,” then saying, “I hope it will last.”  

Live in Suspense emphasizes this contradiction, both its risk and pain, and also its promise of survival. In the title poem, which opens the first section, he speaks of his lover. “I leave Clay / but just for a weekend,” which establishes the push-pull of the long-term partnership and the short-term separation. “Each parting is practice…a little death.” This is echoed in the physical world: “the plunge in the stomach as the elevator / plunges downward, as the plane / will not plunge, probably.”  Chance and death are with us all the time, which he pulls into the pain of the personal:

Which is why when I kiss Clay…
I recall how HIV, unchecked,
made our every day a next-to-last
urgent as orgasm…
I taste the dust of his tongue…
Leaving him, I return to him.

Life is heightened by suspense, but this suspense also heightens the poet’s every moment and frees the poet to be direct, as in the end of “Days of 1980,” when he writes:

two men in a single bed
speaking lung to lung,
mediated by ribs,
waiting for the sun
to end the ruse of sleep,
who kiss with eyes half-shut.

In the poem “Suspense,” one of two in the book, the poet explores his reaction to suspense: “not to let panic preside / to reside inside myself.” “I live in suspense,” he writes.

HIV/AIDS colors this collection with the grim world so many navigated in the 1980s and still do. The last poem in the first section, “I with No Rights in This Matter,” begins “All day I have been looking for my children / who I know will never exist.” He faces his life situation with continued directness and clarity, this man “who in the prime of his sperm suspected his semen was deadly.” Yet, he sees the “mostly straight world’s stranger-children” as “offspring owned by no one,” sees “their incipient decay,” watches them “running to the risk of the intersection, / all of them my letters to God on the street.” He ends with acceptance: “I let them go ahead of me.” 

In the second section, the poet focuses on family, particularly his parents. “Prodigal,” focuses on moving the poet’s father from his Cape Cod house to L.A. where “his place lay furnished but vacant.” He reflects that “The house, no childhood home, / held grief like a grudge.” 

What follows are unique images of the “stuff” that has been let go. This tells the reader so much about these people, “the piano’s rusty intestines,” “the paintings he painted so badly,” the “stereopticon slides of France / snapshots bleeding to glue.” In the father’s new flat, “there is no mold, just dust.” The father “will bear no gifts for his maker.” The poet goes “naked before the Lord.”

“Write About Somebody Else’s Family,” the father cries when he discovers his son, the poet, has written about what happened in Uncle Grant’s car where “the locks were automatic / and this boy was polite.” The importance of this poem is what happens when truth comes out and an effort is made to silence. The boy ends up in his “own prison” for years.

…the family of hiding 
hides the strayed son 
and strips him of
his penis and pen until now.

In the third section, the poet offers poems about Clay, HIV/AIDS, his parents and friends.  Yet, there is room for “I Want to Be Alone,” in which the poet is the only one who “watches this patch / of creek.” He eschews elements of his past. “I step away from all signs…I see no Jesus tubing the flume.” He is “shedding lexicon— / see, I have run out of words / and I hear thunder.”

In the second poem, “Suspense,” the poet explores the complexity of suspense again, how the dying teach the survivors. He imagines being in his car and plunging off a suspension bridge into New York harbor. Divers “arrive / to pluck me back to the sun, / my heart bursting.” This is the elegy, the redemption, to go on living in the face of risk and death.

In his final poem, “The World Without Me,” nature carries on without him, the woodpecker, other birds, the lake. Yet, “Someone remembers me nicely for an instant, / and their phone trembles with a message.” “Someone reads my poem just to see / what she can steal for her poem.” “Someone wrestles in orgasm. / Someone else screams— / joy, pain fear, I for one can’t tell.” In the end, “a tree of some kind just falls down, / become[s] driftwood, debris, or lumber.”

There is nothing in the end, not for him, not for anyone: no “stuff,” no lover, not even remembrance. All of us return to the world alone with nothing, and with no knowledge of our fate. Which is why we must Live in Suspense.

About the reviewer: Aline Soules’ writing has appeared in such publications as The Kenyon Review, Houston Literary  Review, Poetry Midwest, and The Galway Review.  She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in Danville, California.  Online: http://alinesoules.com