An 'Ocean' Of Loss, Through A Poet's Prism Poet Kelle Groom crams so much pain into her new memoir that it's almost hard to believe. But ultimately it's her spare and vital voice — not the tragic circumstances of her life — that makes I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of A Girl so exhilarating.


Book Reviews

An 'Ocean' Of Loss, Through A Poet's Prism

Cover of I Wore The Ocean In The Shape Of A Girl, by Kelle Groom
I Wore The Ocean In The Shape Of A Girl
By Kelle Groom
Hardcover, 268 pages
Free Press
List Price: $23
Read An Excerpt

There was once a cultural moment — though not one that is easy to remember — when only a select few writers got the privilege of publishing a memoir with a big house. Those writers had to either a) be famous, b) have such a compelling story that it screamed to be told, or c) be a fantastic enough stylist to gloss over the lulls and ebbs of a sometimes banal life.

These days, memoirs are being snatched up by the dozens for publication, and many of their authors have none of these qualifications. Sure, celebrities are still confessing their sins on the page (see the current best-seller lists) and the genre has produced blockbusters (some later found to be based on lies), but for the most part memoir has become a literary punch line.

And yet, even now, there are the memoirs that break through. Writing out one's experiences is still a powerful form of catharsis, and when the author has been through enough to have learned some big lessons and has the chops to express them well, the result can be exhilarating. Such is the case with acclaimed poet Kelle Groom's new memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of A Girl.

Groom has crammed so much pain into one lifetime that it is almost hard to believe: An alcoholic at 15 and pregnant at 19, she, on her family's urging, gave up her infant to an aunt and uncle to raise. That child, Tommy, surrendered to leukemia before the age of 2, and Groom's family kept the details of his illness from her, choosing to let her grow up with a hazy vision of how her baby lived and ultimately died. In the years that follow, Groom was abducted and raped after a night of heavy drinking, the second time in her life she had come under assault (she was attacked at knifepoint as a teen). She fell in and out of rehab for drinking and self-mutilation, got engaged and then broke it off, preferring several short love affairs and random sexual encounters. She moved from place to place in search of sobriety, safety and solace. And she was saved, at least in part, by writing poetry — and by digging deep into medical archives to understand her son's prognosis.

Kelle Groom is the author of three collections of poetry. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2010, The New Yorker, Ploughshares and Poetry Marion Ettlinger/ hide caption

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Marion Ettlinger/

Kelle Groom is the author of three collections of poetry. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2010, The New Yorker, Ploughshares and Poetry

Marion Ettlinger/

The bare bones of the plot are certainly gripping — the loss of a son she never knew, the lifelong grieving process and investigation of that loss — but it is Groom's writing that stakes out the book's place in the genre and, in ways, seeks to elevate it. After reading I Wore the Ocean, you'll wish that more poets would write their lives in prose — Groom's voice feels vital and awake, uncompromising and refreshingly spare.

Groom beautifully summons the smallest moments from her memory. When a boyfriend once hugged her after learning about her son, she writes, "that holding on stays with me, like the painted works of mercy." Remembering the last time she embraced Tommy, she writes, "His head is barely resting on my white cardigan, almost as if he's levitating. But he's at ease with me, nearly asleep in the red flowers."

I Wore the Ocean details an emotional turf we know well. Groom understands that slipping and sliding around in our hurt is far easier to do than stepping up to the hard work of healing, but it is only through healing that we redeem ourselves. Groom's story of unrelieved pain can read at times as too intense, a piling on of unbearable circumstance. But her attempts to makes sense of this hurt and move beyond it soften the blows, and because her storytelling is non-linear, the reader knows, early on, that relief is on the way. Groom eventually blossoms into a successful poet, publishes in The New Yorker and makes peace with missing Tommy's short life.

The writing of this memoir is yet another step in Groom's return to health, but it has the depth to serve a larger purpose, too. I Wore the Ocean would be a comforting resource for any parent who has lost a child, either to illness or to alcoholism. Groom's story might even encourage others to mine their histories to reconnect — if only spiritually — with an estranged loved one. Groom herself, now 48, was struck by the restorative power of such a pursuit: "I hoped that by writing about Tommy, I could find him; that the writing would take me to him. [Even] still, I'm surprised that that is what it's doing."

Excerpt: 'I Wore The Ocean In The Shape Of A Girl'

Cover of I Wore The Ocean In The Shape Of A Girl, by Kelle Groom

Evidence Of Things Not Seen

I Wore The Ocean In The Shape Of A Girl
By Kelle Groom
Hardcover, 268 pages
Free Press
List Price: $23
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. –Hebrews 11:1

Morphine makes me weightless, airborne. Like a spider. I rest in a corner of the high ceiling, look down on my body on the white hospital bed. It is just one shot, one needle through my skin. But even nine months pregnant, my frame is small — the weight all baby. So the effect of the drug is a flood in my veins. I'd like to walk down the street feeling this light. I'd like to be a passenger in a dusty car on a dirt road, and see a veil of trees, the clearing inside. Graveyard of cars arranged in a kind of circle. All the engines lifted out, windows dull with dirt. In that clearing I know I could find evidence of things unseen. Me on the bed waiting for my cervix to be effaced. Waiting to open like a door, ten centimeters. Then I can push.

"I can't believe you did this twice,"I say to my mother after I come down from the ceiling, and a truck stuck in the sand guns it below my belly button. Digs in, stalls, digs. My mother laughs.

"You forget,"she says. Pulls her chair closer. We're both mothers now. In the circle that the bed makes for us, she's not mad at me for not marrying, not appalled by my sexuality, my basic biology, my lack of restraint. She's helping me count contractions, her knees a few inches away from me in her beige pantsuit. One of the outfits she wears to teach first grade. At school, the children all sit in a circle around her. Once, her school gave her an award; they took her picture as she leaned against a tree, smiling. Now it's 1981. Despite the pain, I'm happy to be here with her. There's an easiness, as if we're on a brief vacation together, like friends. She's younger than I am now, about to hold her first grandchild, about to let me give him away. My mom will never touch him again. She'll blow up the snapshot of my son that my aunt and uncle will mail to us, frame it, place it on the dresser in her bedroom. The enlarging process increasing the light in the photo, so that he's surrounded by glowing circles, like snow is falling on him at night.

My son has his eyes closed now. He's close to leaving my nineteen-year-old body. Ripples wash over his skin that no one has ever touched, except me. We're still together. My darkness keeps him safe, fed. My body does everything right: carrying, feeding, singing a water song. My heart counted on like a lullaby. In the outside world, my practical skills are limited — I don't know how to keep house or manage money, sometimes I can barely speak. But in my son's world, my body has everything he needs. I belong to him.

I'd had an overwhelming need to push for what felt like a long time, but the nurses kept saying it was too early, "Don't push."When a nurse looks between my legs, she's surprised. "The baby's coming,"she says. "Push."Her tone is controlled but urgent. They need to move fast. The medical people still have to get me into the delivery room. They scoot me onto a rolling bed, push me down the hall into another room. My mother goes to sit with my dad in the waiting room. I don't know who decides I'm going to do this alone. Even my own doctor isn't on duty. The hands that lift me are speedy, rushed. My bare feet are put into cold metal stirrups, which feels frightening. As if something is about to happen that I will not be able to stand unless I am restrained. A lamp is floodlight bright. I'm glad to push. A couple of minutes go by. I scream once. It's a surprise — no planning, no slow intake of breath. The pain is surprising; my skin about to rip open from my baby's head pushing out. The threshold keeps being raised. I scream again when I tear. And my son is in the world. I thought he would be red with blood or white or wrinkled. Maybe they washed him before I saw him? His skin looks like the skin on apricots. It might have been all the carrot juice I drank. He looks as if he's had a lifetime of good meals.

Then, they take him away. It's probably strange to him too, the first time we've parted since he was an unseen spiral twirling inside. A doctor takes a needle and thread and sews me up. I've been given a numbing shot, but I can still feel the tug of each stitch. The way he makes it tight.

Nurses lift me onto a rolling bed again, take me into a ward of the Navy hospital. One side of the hall is maternity; the other side for women with gynecological problems. Our side is lit up, shining. I fall asleep. But in a few hours, a nurse wakes me up. "Your baby's hungry."My body weeps as if a horse had kicked me between my legs, or bitten me with its huge horse teeth. I am sure that no one in my state should stand up. "You need to stand up,"the nurse repeats. "Your baby needs to eat. It's been four hours."My hospital gown is a bloom around my body. I sit up. My feet hang off the bed, and the nurse gives me her arm. She doesn't smile. She's a Navy nurse, a member of the military. I can feel a pool inside my body, a slosh of blood. My breasts leak through my gown. I clutch the nurse's arm. My feet cold on the floor. She walks.

I follow her down the middle of the hall to a room of glass, where we turn right, until we come to a room without glass, a door. I stand inside, teetering beside a sink. Rocking chairs behind me against the wall. "Wait here."She leaves. She comes back with my baby. He is wrapped in a white blanket, that material that feels as if it has clouds in it, hilly and airy at the same time. Someone has wrapped my baby's hands in white gauze, so he won't scratch his face with his fingernails. The nurse points to the sink, the pHisoderm. I soap myself, rinse. Pat my hands dry with a brown paper towel.

My baby's eyes are still closed, and they're big. The arc of his eyelids are little beds where I rest my eyes. He's the most peaceful baby I have ever seen. It's Mom, I want him to know without my saying so. The nurse doesn't know he's being adopted. She doesn't know the mistake she's making. The doctor will come to me later and say I can't hold my baby again, can't feed him. "It could cause you permanent emotional damage,"he says. I'm in the TV room when he walks in to tell me this. It's night. The doctor's day is done, but he wants to let me know this now, so I won't expect to feed my son again. The Greatest American Hero is on the TV screen. The actor has the curly yellow hair of an angel, flying around to help people out. "Can I still look at him through the glass?"I ask. The doctor acquiesces. "But just once a day,"he says. I'm in the hospital for three days. And it's only this day, this morning, that the nurse will say, "Hold your arms like this,"as she holds my son close to her chest. And then she holds him out to me.

Her arms are like bridges, transporting my son to me in this breathing world. I feel as though my vision could fill with white clouds at any moment, that I could fall to the floor. I feel that someone should be steadying me. But then the weight of him is in my hands. And it is like carrying him inside my body — something I already know how to do. There is no thought of letting go. The bones in my arms use all their hardness, my blood, my skin itself, all the force in my body holds him, will keep him safe against any harm. My legs are metal. "You can sit in the rocking chair,"the nurse says. I relax against the cushion beneath me, the chair's wooden bars supporting my back like little trees. "Hold his head up,"she says, and hands me a bottle. The nurse leaves.

We're quiet. My son and I like it, not rushing. I introduce myself for real: "It's Mom."He likes me. I place the bottle on his little rose mouth, let him take the nipple in his mouth. But he's not hungry yet. A little milk comes out on his lips. I don't know how much time I have. I say, his name, "Tommy."I'm the first one to call him by his name. I say, "I love you."I want to take my time, tell him everything. But he's so content. We rock a little. Hang out. We would have been so good together with silences. The nurse comes back.

I never feed him again. No matter how many Kleenexes I put in my bra cups, despite the pills I take to dry up my milk, it leaks through all my clothes. My small breasts become so heavy and hard they are like mini basketballs. I could feed ten babies with this milk. During the day, a nurse brings a heat machine, a bright electric sun, and shines it between my legs to dry my stitches. The curtains are drawn. I can hear my aunt and uncle outside the cloth, the joking about my suntanning machine. They are kind, jubilant to become my baby's parents. His eyes are still closed. During the day, I break the doctor's rule and stand at the glass for every feeding. I dismiss the doctor's warning about causing damage to myself. I need to see my son. It's like the need to push when he was being born. There's no choice. Watch a nurse hold my boy in her arms. Sometimes she stands while she feeds him, sometimes she sits. When she's standing, she holds him up high, as if showing him to someone — a king. Here he is. The nurses scowl at me. But what can they do? One nurse comes to me at night, opens my curtain. She sits on my bed as if she is my friend. "Would you like to talk?"she asks. "No,"I say. Maybe she was doing something extra, trying to be nice, helpful. But I am in no mood for pity. At the glass, I watch the nurse give my son a bottle, my breasts leaking dark quarters through my bra, my gown. I stand there, and watch him held in her hard arms and think, I can do that. I can do that.

On the fourth day, I am discharged. The air is tense when my family arrives — my mother and father, my aunt and uncle — because they are afraid. They are afraid that I will take him in my arms and not let go. That we will hitch a ride out of town, and I will bleed all over the front seat, massaging my uterus with one hand. Trying to bring it back to size. Calm the blood down. My breasts have all the food my son needs. And finally he'll be able to latch on, to relieve this pressure, this store of milk I've been saving for him. The nurse shows my aunt and uncle my son's belly button, she explains how to care for it, where we connected. She opens his blanket to do this, my naked boy. My aunt has clothes for him. She has a baby snowsuit. It envelops him in cushy plastic. Like an Eskimo baby. My mom is motioning me out of the way. But the nurse who never smiled, she says, "No matter who is adopting the baby, the mother takes him out of the hospital."The mother, the mother. That's me. I'm visible again. It's a rule, so no one can disagree. I make my arms into the shape of a cradle. The nurse places my son in my arms. His snowsuit is soft and puffy. He looks comfortable nestled in there, eyes closed. I'm not yet afraid of doing anything wrong, of holding on to him. I know this is just for a few moments, and it's not private, but I'm so grateful to have him back. Light and space around us, despite the others crowding. I walk down the white hallway. They are all around me, anxious. But we are calm. Then the front door is open, and the air blows cold on us. I'm at the threshold, stepping onto the hospital porch, and my mom commands, "Hand Julia the baby."And I do. But it is as if I am an orange, an apple, some fruit with skin that a knife has been taken to, cutting. The watered air around me is the seen world. The porch has a few wide steps, as if the hospital was just a house. My aunt is smiling so wide, her smile is all I can see of her face, except her eyes locked down on him. In the world, he belongs to her now.

Excerpted from I Wore The Ocean In The Shape Of A Girl by Kelle Groom. Copyright 2011 by Kelle Groom. Excerpted by permission of Free Press.