REVIEW: Present Imperfect by Ona Gritz

Review of Ona Gritz, Present Imperfect. Poets Wear Prada, 2021.

by Liz Chang

As grammarians know, the “present perfect” verb form is used for actions that began in the past and continue into the present moment or those that occurred at an indefinite time. A sense of playfulness with time—or its collapse into the present moment—reverberates throughout Ona Gritz’ new collection of essays. I’d describe this as “playfulness,” even though the subjects in these essays are serious and often quite tragic: a difficult childhood, the end of a marriage, the narrator’s experiences with disability and identity while growing up, and the eventual murder of her sister’s family. As the title implies, this narrator remains keenly aware of how imperfection can increase the value of a memory. She speaks with a gentle self-deprecation, not shrinking from those instances where she wishes she acted differently. At the end of an essay about the heady days of finding new love, she admits: “Here is the part I don’t like telling. While we were kissing in public places, someone else loved me too” (40). The voice of this narrator gains our trust through her willingness to look at herself directly, in all her human fallibility.

Although these essays are poignant, the surprising treat when one reads them is that they do not weigh us down. There’s a delight we feel in looking over the shoulder of this, at times, slightly unreliable narrator (due to her naïveté). In those moments, however, the omniscient present-day voice steps in to let us know how this recalled moment fits into the larger pattern. As a result, the essays feel as though they are telescoping through time, like those delicate papercut accordion books where you stretch the scene out in front of you to keep seeing more detail, as if you are the vanishing point. Halfway through the essay that makes up the heart of the collection (“It’s Time”), about retracing her sister’s last steps and learning more about her and her family’s horrific end, the sister/detective speaks directly to her deceased sister’s grave: “You taught me how to be happy.” Then the narration switches from the distanced second person pronoun to a reclaiming “I”: “Here is where I finally cry. Because, of course, this isn’t your story, but mine…” (76). The courage of this moment is astounding.

Gritz’ nonfiction work is influenced by her poetic practice as well. She has the ability to bring two images together to create a breathtaking magnetism, such as when she describes the heart of the cover image, a mother and child in silhouette, taken by a new photographer (her ex-husband): “…the negative space, its one border made by my chin and my child’s ear…doesn’t it resemble an open-winged bird? Doesn’t it suggest flight?” (34). There are moments that could verge on the sentimental, but Gritz carefully dances away from the edge in a way that avoids this danger. In all, it is the imperfection of this narrator, how she underestimates herself and her insights throughout—while maintaining a tone of open invitation in her voice, to pull up a chair next to her, like a dear friend might—that is the true accomplishment of this beautifully rendered collection.

 

The Cross Section – ONLINE BONUS

my heart is an ever-expanding forest

singing songs of the wind

jumping like a deer

across cold water streams

at the first bloom of spring flowers 

 

still…my heart is full of concrete jungles 

city lights over the highway 

a sea of red

accompanied by a music fest 

of honks and screeching tires 

the city never sleeps

when iron giants look on

great and unblinking

 

my heart is a world

is a work in progress

but most importantly 

my heart is my home

my family’s garden

 

i am everything yet nothing 

at the same time

a poem written by ancestors before me 

i am history


Evan Wang is a freshman at  Upper Merion Area High School. After picking up the pen two years ago, he’s never let it down. He currently resides in King of Prussia, PA with his parents who support his poetry despite not understanding a single word. Evan loves reading, listening to music, journaling, and diving into some watercolor and colored pencils from time to time. His biggest inspirations are Amanda Gorman, Savannah Brown and his life.

Mannequin – ONLINE BONUS

Out of all the faces in the room

all the sparkling sets of eyes

one dull lifeless unblinking pair

stare internally into me.

 

I felt a chill up my spine 

as it stares

unmotivated to move.

 

It was as if I was Medusa 

Yet, somehow I was the victim.

The eyes judge me as if

They had witnessed every past mistake

In my life.

 

Confused, violated, agitated, I break into a cold sweat.

What once was a dream event for me

Had swiftly turned into a nightmare.

 

I head for the door and flee.


-LoRon Pearson, age 16

Blood in the Ink – ONLINE BONUS

from human suffering 

comes the greatest art

so maybe my heart beats 

with irregularity 

because i want it to

why else were timeless artists 

always under the blues

 

conducting an orchestra 

of broken bone symphony 

sounding harm’s melody

finding art/pleasure 

(I can’t tell the difference)

in the aftermaths 

of a chaotic rumbling loss

 

enough to be addicting

to become the focal point

in each and every hurdle

the silver lining 

of coffins 

 

until i jump just for the fall 

feel the wind slip through my fingers 

land in an unnatural way 

until i drive onto the highway 

with no destination in mind 

facing oncoming traffic with dead headlights 

until i set fire to everything

just for a poem to be born

like some glory Phoenix 

 

one day art will come back

and i will accompany it

lay ruin to everything 

while numb to my bruised heart 

only feeling its labored beats

after i wake

tarnished in a field 

falling ashes

 

my mouth screams plucked teeth

out into the world

a job of my own doing 

i broke every rule 

harmed every soul

so where is my art/relief 

(I can’t tell the difference)

now?


Evan Wang is a freshman at the Upper Merion Area High School. After picking up the pen two years ago, he’s never let it down. He currently resides in King of Prussia, PA with his parents who support his poetry despite not understanding a single word. Evan loves reading, listening to music, journaling, and diving into some watercolor and colored pencils from time to time. His biggest inspirations are Amanda Gorman, Savannah Brown, and his life. 

Down That River – ONLINE BONUS

I am Emmet Till. 

In the casket, my mother shows my face – swollen, deformed, beaten.

Under my suit, my skin is pierced by barbs of wire.
I still had a little life in me when they strapped me to that tire – hurled me into that river.

Only my hat survived – brim up.

 

I am Tamir Rice. I know better but today I play “gangster” with a toy gun.

It starts to snow. I watch crystals float down in the city.
A police car speeds, brakes screech, two shots fire.

I fall, fade, think how I never saw the sea …and that’s when Emmet comes to me.

 

Though we died decades apart, now we walk together.

We walk all the way down to Emmet’s Mississippi river

thick with the scent of summer honeysuckle.

He finds his hat, brushes off dirt, sets it on his head

just so.

 

We are drawn to the sound of trickling water and push our way through the reeds.

On the bank we kneel side by side.

In the water’s mirror, we see ourselves whole again

all stitched back together.

We splash the dried blood off and rest.

 

We awaken at night with the noise of owls hooting.

Like magic Harriet appears, as in those pictures with her old rowboat and a blue scarf on her head.

She reaches out, pulls us in, her boat sways with our weight.

 

Harriet rows fast, her oars splash in a beat.
She lets out an owl hoot every so often as if checking for some unseen force.

We dip our fingers in the water as we glide.
She tells us to keep hanging on but under the moonlight

our heads sag to our chins in uncontrollable sleep.

She’s got the strength to row this river all night.

She’s gonna get us ghosts down this river

till it carries us to sea.

 

“Gonna get you to the sea by dawn,” Harriet says. 

Cuz there ain’t nothing like dawn on the waves when you’re free.”


Heidi Jacobs is in sixth grade and her favorite subjects are math, space, and science. She is on the swim team year-round but also enjoys running and cycling. She rides horses and loves to curl up with a good book and write in journals. She lives at home with her parents and her lizard named Abraxas in Haddonfield, New Jersey.