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“July,” the fourth collection of poetry by Albany native Kathleen Ossip, examines 21st-century America through the lens of a road trip from Minnesota to Florida. While the American road narrative has famously been explored by artists ranging from Jack Kerouac to Paul Simon, Ossip’s reflections on religion, womanhood, and aging in the United States lend originality and exceptional nuance to this artistic trope. Although she writes with a keen understanding of American political tensions, Ossip’s expression of these falters in the third section of “July,” weakening an otherwise potent display of social consciousness and lyrical talent. Regardless of its few cliché moments, Ossip’s “July” represents a candid and fearless portrait of the author’s voyage into the very heart of her nation.
Split into three sections, “July” is at its most powerful when vividly describing the mundane elements of American life. “On Boredom,” the collection’s third poem, is truly outstanding in this manner. By juxtaposing crucial elements of American iconography — such as the Broadway musical — with memories of her beloved aunt, Ossip foregrounds her later critiques of the nation in a deep appreciation of her cultural heritage. Indeed, throughout “July,” Ossip puts her readers’ experiences in conversation with her own by drawing upon a wide array of cultural touchstones like “Citizen Kane,” McDonald’s, and Georgia O’Keeffe. In her poem “July 4” (another standout), Ossip underscores the havoc that America’s independence has wreaked upon its global neighbors through a short line about a dog’s fear of fireworks. These subtleties, found in each section of the collection, demonstrate an astounding intentionality within the author’s choice of imagery.
Additionally, Ossip’s expert use of motherhood as a lens through which to view America is refreshing and deeply affecting. She admirably and honestly recounts her feelings of jealousy, protection, and fear for her daughter, Muriel, in a way reminiscent of Joan Didion’s reflections in her seminal prose work, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” In a particularly haunting line from the poem “July 13,” Ossip learns that Muriel does not know the difference between a pony and a colt and asks herself what else she hasn’t taught her daughter. Through this small moment, Ossip skillfully conveys all of the fear inherent to raising a girl in an environment as hostile to women as much of America seems — a sentiment especially resonant following the newly restrictive abortion laws in Texas.
It is when Ossip strays from her moving descriptions of the ordinary into grand statements regarding the failures of the American experiment that her distinct voice begins to deteriorate. In “July 11,” for instance, Ossip writes, “It’s easy to love a country if you avoid its people.” While this line may have seemed profound in isolation, when placed next to such exceptional poetry about motherhood and cultural values, it falls flat, reading as trite and unprobing. Disappointing lines such as this one crop up with growing frequency in the third section of “July,” entitled “The Goddess,” with banal remarks concerning global warming and power strewn throughout. Nonetheless, this section also includes some of the most experimental and thoughtful poetry in the entire collection as Ossip explores the role of women as objects for sex and birth in certain subsets of American culture.
An in-depth analysis of the factors that make the vast United States beautiful, complex, and terrifying, Kathleen Ossip’s “July” largely succeeds in its depiction of one woman’s increasingly personal encounters with her country. Beyond her skilled illustration of motherhood, Ossip’s contemplation of consumerism and religion is poignant throughout the collection and represents an original spin on the traditional narrative associated with the American road trip. Despite a handful of contrived moments, “July” is well-worth reading as we try to find a cohesive identity as Americans in rapidly changing and intensely polarized times.
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