Life After Rugby   by Eileen G'Sell   Gold Wake Press , 74 pages December 1,2017

Life After Rugby

by Eileen G'Sell

Gold Wake Press, 74 pages December 1,2017


Reviewed by valerie duff-strautmann

Eileen G’Sell’s new book of poems, Life After Rugby, evokes an athletic weariness, a looking forward to recovery after repeated blows. What else does this book have to do with rugby?  Very little, but sport and competition become G’Sell’s paradigm for how to livesometimes, it’s best to forget about the game and focus on the ball:


Let life eat you.

Say you are thankful

Because you are and because

That is what one says right now.


Summer loss at the hem

Of your dreams, sink your past

On the kindest ship.


You, too, will slip into sun.

You, too, will be kicked awake.

(World Cup)


No matter the narrative here, G’Sell draws us in (often she does this directly, with a you or a we).  “Explicit” begins, “The nice thing was, we were in love.” G’Sell, who is fond of the prose poem, incorporates them throughout the collection and constructs them in simple declarative sentences that recall Frank O’Hara’s voice in poems like “Why I Am Not a Painter,” his ironic, arch cleverness:


I buy a Mini Cooper from an artist from Korea. I drive it fast while singing slow. Take the “O” out of poet and you have a little pet. Tack a “B” onto “itch” and your skin and your skin calms down. When I stray, eat the “R” with your finest silver. When I slide, sip the “L” in a crystal flute, then try to discern which one to land on.


The book is full of many similar seemingly light moments, moments of the twentieth century (the world post verse libre yet pre-9/11). Life After Rugby begins, though, with a reaching backwards that gives the collection weight, and G’Sell’s voice twists into the most modern of ballads:


This place is weird, sexless, and white.

This is the place I came from.

This is the place from which I came.

Plenty of people have.


I am tired of “Du bist wunderbar.”

I am smart as snow on Valentine’s night.

I am a place of silt and lonely anecdotes.

Plenty of people are.

(Follow the Girl in the Red Boots)


This singer who starts out ferocious, individual and an every(wo)man, takes on various masks throughout the book. Page after page she pulls those willing into various scenarios, dreamscapes, and voices, as she promises in “Follow the Girl in Red Boots”:


Follow the girl in the stolen shoes.

Follow the map that she made you.

Follow the soar of her certain song.

Plenty of people won’t.


It’s an invitation aware of its limitations: acknowledges borrowed finery, its own volition, and the right of the reader to reject. It’s also hard to refuse.

Besides being full of more contemporary prose poems, Life After Rugby also pulls towards odes–there are odes here to Mike Tyson, to a taxi driver, to the movie Roman Holiday, to California chrome. Her poem “Whitney Houston Pronounced Dead at 48” didn’t quite earn the title ode, but is certainly an homage, both to the singer and her era, no matter how bittersweet: “Cloud as profile, profile as cloud, so / lonely that even the 1980s glow / like a girl on detox.”

It’s easy to miss G’Sell’s lush musicality in the midst of her more declaratory lines, but she crosses between them, as if fielding traffic, and finds their confluence. These are the poems of the rugby player, or at least of the fighter (think Tyson), that admit “I just want to give you / a run for your money” (“Take Her Down”). G’Sell is fierce, the champion of pain and the hope of subduing it: “The trick is how to trick / yourself. The heart is rock / until it is thrown” (“Honeymoon that Never Happened”). In “I Am, As Always,” she returns to the guiding voice of the opening poem, but sadder and wiser now: “There are places where the precipice / of reason is the reason. Hold on / to my wreckage or, please, let me go.” In it, she refers to herself as the “clarified/butter in a bowl of milk.” Much earlier, in poem called “Real Butter,” there are flashes of insight about life’s opacity and the lack of solid truths:


At best, life is hard.

At worst, life is easy.

I believe it is true.

I would like to believe

I believe it is true.


That equivocation about what to believe returns in the poem, “The World,” which uses anaphora and stateliness as it moves into the world of current events: into the shooting of unarmed black men and children by white police officers, into the privilege of looking away, into culpability:


...Our loved world

Would love to be happy, would be happy to love

The smut, the sage. Then a man dies quiet and another

Dies loud, a boy lies dead for more than four hours.

The world is not afraid to watch, is full

Of carpeted reasons to wait. The world underground

Is thorny, smells, and is much more loved

Than the world we know. The world has wasted

A lot of water. Power is wasting the city sun.

Let’s all confess full on for the world, for ourselves

Still wet with unknowable heat, that the world we

Shower with lies, with snacks, is the whitest

World one can painfully know. Let us rise


Feminist poems, like “Invisible Men,” exist in the moment of seeing the characters of this world more clearly, or rather, seeings through them: “Lately, I’ve stopped seeing rich white men….Please don’t take it personally. I just happen to see right through you.” For these moments that transcend to touch on wider social issues of the moment, we are grateful.

G’sell has one hand in the dream world, but another firmly on the world we all inhabit. “Gently Now, the Revolutions” begins with the saucy line, “I was going to tell you where to go,” and melts into a space that’s personal yet leaves the story and history lover waiting for her next deft move: “where leaves / are all the likeness of a fallen letter ‘k,’ / if all else fails, plan to meet in Kansas, / Krakow, Kyoto, Kokomo Beach.”

At the end, she emerges open, pure, and luminous, the athlete whose game has ended, concluding with “I Have Not Been Charged for the Closet” (here in full):


That was filled with birds, silt, gloves,

and the dullness of pedals. My heart was clean


from the very first.  My hands were ready

and opened like gifts. In sleep, the sound of hours rushed

across the street to ravish me.


I have made light of many things

and that’s why we can see in here.



Valerie Duff-Strautmann’s reviews have appeared recently in Salamander, The Critical Flame, and The Boston Globe. She recently held fellowships at the VCCA and Writers’ Room of Boston. Her book of poems is To the New World (Salmon Poetry), and she is Poetry Editor of Salamander Magazine.