Karen Finneyfrock's Ceremony for the Choking Ghost provides a profoundly poignant record of the poet's reaction to her sister's death from unexplained heart failure at age thirty-six. Karen's grief and raw vulnerability render her speechless, shellshocked, nearly debilitated. She battles to stay emotionally afloat, succumbing at times, but more often than not emerging more deeply empathetic to others' grief. "How to Recognize a Damaged Girl," for example, so tellingly relates the essential images of her poem's subjects: "Eyeliner" and "mimic shiners" and "acrylic nails and fishnets." And there is the poet's trademark gift for simile and metaphor: "Cigarettes hang off their lips/like bridge jumpers who change their minds."
The poet also reveals her vulnerability in matters of romance. In the hilarious "Miss You," Karen wants to push away a lover who broke with and disappointed her, yet her heart goes "jackhammer" and "carousel" when he whispers he misses her. She seems almost angry at her vulnerability to such a man's charms--yet she expiates her longing through finely sarcastic delineation of the man's truncated acknowledgement, "Miss you." By poem's end, she feels less dependent on his good graces. She will "fold" his nostalgic words and put them "in my purse. I might be hungry later."
Such wit and sarcasm find other expressions here, as one would expect from one of our country's finest performance poets. Indeed, Ceremony begins with the fire and brimstone of "What Lot's Wife Would Have Said (If She Were Not a Pillar of Salt)." The poem excoriates the self-serving sanctimony of religious bigots who equate gays with decadence. Elsewhere in the collection, the poet makes clear she is proud of her friendship with gay people. In "Rebecca and Her Lover Ate Oysters," a lesbian couple finds a pearl in an oyster among those they ordered in a restaurant. Waiters and patrons both celebrate the rare occurrence. The poet, presumably still grieving over her sister's death, pointedly refers to God at poem's end: "Here is the reason, for one more day/to keep vainly believing God loves us." The poet sounds uncertain about God's love yet totally sincere celebrating others' joy in the couple's finding the pearl. This is turn reflects her hope for an inclusive divinity--a God who loves gays as well as straights; blacks as well as whites; women as well as men; poor as well as rich; indeed, every "necessary shining child." Karen demonstrates compassion and hints her compassion might be linked to such a God.
The emotional complexity of poems such as "Rebecca and Her Lover Ate Oysters" suggests Karen Finneyfrock's impressive maturation since the publication of her promising first collection, Welcome to the Butterfly House. Here are warmth and love--without false comfort. Yes, this is a brave voice--not as in feigned bravado but as in quiet acknowledgement of flaw and insecurity and weakness, and the redemption that accrues to those honest about them.