Several would be an understatement for Florida poet Kelle Groom. Halfway into her ravishing mosaic of a memoir, it’s easy to lose count of the dark nights. It’s even easier to lose sight of Groom, whose life force flickers throughout her book like a genie trapped in a bottle.
The 32 poetic, loosely chronological vignettes in I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Free Press) tell how she came to end up there, after having a baby at 19 and giving it up for adoption to her aunt and uncle, never realizing she had much of a choice.
A year later, her child died of leukemia.
Forbidden to visit her son or attend his funeral, Groom hid her grief, kept her questions to herself, unable to demand answers. But none of this was new: By then, she had been invisible for most of her young life.
In the beginning, she was there, but she wasn’t. A “studious, quiet daughter” who had stopped speaking somewhere along the way, who let other family members do the talking, she looked on while “someone else always did everything better” than her. “I wasn’t allowed to use the kitchen or cook; I never washed a dish; the washer and dryer were off limits; I never cleaned anything.”
But like many young girls, Groom was trusted to babysit. No one guessed that when she was alone with the neighbor’s baby, she looked for any excuse to spank him. Or that she was sampling her customer’s liquor cabinets, finding alcohol the ideal gateway to self-confidence—“a potion that changes me, makes me unafraid.” In hot pursuit of that newfound self, she has her first blackout at fifteen.
Years later, after her son dies, alcohol fulfills an opposite desire: Not only does Groom want to disappear into the bottle, she flirts with the idea of never coming back. Drunk, she cuts herself; she walks down black highways alone, blacks out in bars. The poetry that describes the horror of her downward spiral is alternately beautiful and terrifying, as in a scene where she’s abducted, raped and, miraculously, let go:
In the beginning, when I fight, it’s like being underwater after a big wave, unable to find which way is up, holding my breath. I push as hard as I can, but the weight is like rocks, like heavy furniture, unmoving … My body’s empty, lungs like handkerchiefs flat inside my chest. I breathe something that’s not air, not struggling… This girl, in this room, could be leaves in the woods, an arm poking out. Grass growing out of her mouth.
Like the quiet girl she once was, Groom lets these metaphors speak for her. They resemble the pages she tears from a magazine during therapy, ones that “describe your feelings, desires that you can’t tell others”—even the images and text you find on the side you didn’t look at, her counselor says, is important.
Each memory can be held up to the light to reveal another meaning; as Groom positions one incident here, another image there, the story shimmers, takes form.
A great-aunt that Groom calls “the frozen woman” loses her voice when she succumbs to paralysis. She can answer Groom’s questions about her son, though, by writing on “a two-sided screen” where her words appear in green letters.
During a trip to a shoe museum in search of information about toxic waste that might have caused her son’s leukemia, Groom recalls hobnail boots whose nails “were placed in a pattern” that “spelled words to be left in the ground as a shoe print. A message you could leave behind.”
In some chapters, where Groom collages dates, people and incidents too thickly, this nonlinear approach is less effective. She hits rock bottom, enters recovery, lasts 30 or 60 or 180 days only to binge again, start over, quit school for the second time or third. Between drinking partners, recovery buddies and old boyfriends who surface in between, her life begins to blur like a wreck seen from the window of a moving car—one that shoots past, backs up, and races forward again.
Fortunately, most of the memoir pans slowly, piecing together and creating the whole the way Groom once felt herself rematerialize under a boy’s hands: “And where he touches me, I appear … like when someone finds a new piece of land and names each part, the naming makes a place.”
I Wore the Ocean … is as much about her search for her buried self as for the child she lost, both of which will eventually be returned to her through the medium of writing, of poetry, and of forgiveness. In the end, by breaking a decades-long silence, Groom has weathered her dark nights to earn a soul as big as the ocean. As it gradually takes the shape of a girl, a woman and finally a mother, the reader, too, comes away transformed.