Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Carrying
by Ada Limón
(Milkweed Editions, 2018)

Reviewed by Peter H. Michaels

Ada Limón’s new collection The Carrying finds joy in the quotidian and wonders how a self-directed life should feel. The poems repeat imagery of the newly born, green growth, and death as moments with truth, but without answers. In “The Real Reason” the speaker’s mother is scarred “from an explosion that took her first child she was carrying / in her belly,” and although a similar speaker in the poem “Trying” is working with her partner “to knock [her] up again,” the book expands the meaning of “carrying” beyond its recognized connotations. Limón’s ability to examine the smallest moments of life anew and translate that wonder and weight to the page is astounding and illustrates what this collection carries.

The speaker in “The Last Drop” owns many of the collection’s narratives as her own and considers the many stories—replete with grief—she carries within. After iterating several titles for her potential memoir the speaker recites two parallel parables implying that her life hasn’t been “easy,” but “all of it is good.” This thought guides the reading of “Dead Stars” which is seeded with lines such as, “We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out / the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder. // It’s almost romantic,” because Limón mates the celestial with the earthly while meditating in the midst of collecting trash.

In “Almost Forty” the speaker says “I’ve never been someone / to wish for too much, but now I say, I want to live a long time.” Facing mid-life after accruing a lifetime of grief leaves the speaker afraid, but grasping for more. This sentiment is repeated in “Sundown & All the Damage Done” where the speaker finds “a strange / contentment to this countdown” of years in contrast to loved ones who have passed already. This consideration of mortality continues in “The Vulture & The Body” when the speaker asks, “What if, instead of carrying / a child, I am supposed to carry grief?”

While not an answer, a reply is found in “Instructions on Not Giving Up” as the speaker faces “a green skin / growing over whatever winter did to us,” because now the speaker is like that greening tree that “seems to say, a new slick leaf / unfurling like a fist, I’ll take it all.” This acceptance of growth, in whatever form it takes, roots as the collection winds down. Other green and grounded moments occur in “The Burying Beetle” where a speaker confesses that she “lost God awhile ago. / And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture / the plants deepening right now into the soil, / wanting to live, so I lie down among them,” and this scene of grafting new vegetable life to her own becomes explicit.

Scions of leafy, life-like weeds and tomato plants wind through this collection. The speaker in “Dandelion Insomnia” stays awake pondering how simple propagation would be if she were a weed like a dandelion “making perfect identical selves, bam, another me, / bam, another me.” This innate fertility in weeds is paralleled by animal life in “Carrying”:

    A few farms over, there’s our mare,
    her belly barrel-round with foal, or idea
    of foal. It’s Kentucky, late fall, and any
    mare worth her salt is carrying the next
    potential stakes winner.

While “What I Didn’t Know Before” is a poem-length metaphor about an effortless love, the ease of animal reproduction returns: “A horse gives way / to another horse and then suddenly there are / two horses, just like that.” This is in stark contrast to the speaker in “Would You Rather” who is struggling with fertility and is “making a list of all the places / I found out I wasn’t carrying a child.” 

Then in “Mastering” the speaker’s trusted friend posits “the thing that makes you / believe there might be a god after all, is the making of a child” adding a friendly face to a patent societal pressure intimately intertwined with womanhood. This married speaker without children seems to broadcast an implied desire for childlessness, adding sting to her secret struggle with infertility. Her friend, assuming that a woman’s meaning in life must be gestated, regardless of willingness or capability, wounds the speaker and their friendship. The reader is privy to the speaker’s unspoken thoughts, “Isn’t love / that doesn’t result in a seed, a needy body, another suckling animal, / still love? Isn’t that supernatural? Screw your god.”

The speaker in “Trying” tells us “I’d forgotten how much / I like to grow things” adjacent to another attempt at pregnancy. Likewise, the speaker in “Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother” eschews traditional motherhood for days “writing words / and then at the movies, where my man has bought me a drink, // because our bodies are our own.” While “Trying” ends with desire to nurture another:

    I still worry
    and want an endless stream of more,
    but some days I can see the point
    in growing something, even if
    it’s just to say I cared enough.

This feeling seems reconciled by “Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother,” which says “it’s only the original tree again, green branches giving way // to other green branches, everything coming back to life.”

At the end of the collection, we arrive at a reckoning with these struggles in these lines from “Sparrow, What Did You Say?”

    What would I
    do with a kid here? Teach her
    to plant, watch her like I do
    the lettuce leaves, tenderly, place
    her palms in the earth, part her
    black hair like planting a seed? Or
    would I selfishly demand this day
    back, a full untethered day trying
    to figure out what bird was calling
    to me and why.

This passage leaves the speaker questioning whether her offspring should inhabit ink and page or a more corporeal form without any answer.

Generally, a failure to reconcile a craving for the impossible with an accepting of the attained is jet fuel for anxiety. The Carrying brings this fuel of the unanswerable to the burning grief from Limón’s preceding collection Bright Dead Things where such losses could “light up the room with pain, / [it would] be such a glorious fire.” However, the speaker in “Mastering” starts to accept that “perhaps the only thing I can make / is love and art,” and the poems in this collection are bursting with masterfully created art. That isn’t all that it is carrying. What Limón’s collection truly carries is “so much fire,”  a glorious fire—lighting a path of self-awareness and warming the chill of loneliness—allowing a reader to stop and encounter all that they are carrying.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Personal Science
by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
(Tupelo Press, 2017)

Reviewed by C.K. Coombs

Dreams are seldom drawn from the void. The unanchored scenes, the acute images, and the vivid feelings of a light doze and impactful musings, these are drawn from experience and not from nothing. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s Personal Science is a collection of poetry that first mystifies, then touches the reader. Upon initial inspection, one may be tempted to think the book nothing but a series of half-remembered dreams, but deeper analysis reveals a grim and somewhat disturbing memoir. It is a submersion into Bertram’s stream of consciousness, which runs dark and wide.

Bertram’s writing creates a nebulous dreamscape, one of fading and flashing pictures, scenes that are often ominous. That fear suffuses the book with an atmosphere not unlike that which pervades a nightmare. Take “Homo narrans (chainsaw)” for example, wherein one of the only images described is that of “the blood spray on the garden’s wooden fence,” or the poem “Cerebrum corpus monstrum,” which begins with a terrifying series of implications:

    Nothing to be preserved
    By the idea of paradise.

    Take this pistol.

    The old dog’s ashes taken home in a cedar box.

    Take this blindfold.

    The warbler with the cinched wing won’t take
    From your handful of seeds.

    Shoot into the crowd.

    To feel the heart, you must
    Put your hand in it.

The reader is left haunted, wondering at the grim scenes which continue throughout the book. They seem to jump randomly among topics such as phobias, relationships, farewells, and death. Initially, it all comes off as strange and disjointed, like the shadowy figments and fragmented memories of a mind on the edge of sleep.

A small, clarifying rule for the book can be easily overlooked at the beginning. In the first poem entitled “A little tether,” Bertram recognizes the mind-bending journey that the reader is about to embark on, and seems to throw them a life-line, a grounding cable to some form of reality.

    The thing is just what’s said
    The line I try to get to
    There are rules even for dreams
    The cars are always cars I’ve driven
    The men men I’ve known

With that excerpt, the book is charged with an authenticity and a exposure that captivates the reader, and shifts the tone. These are not riddles without answers, designed to confuse. They are reminiscence, a recalling of things muddled—of pain and fear, of abuse, of “cars [she’s] driven,” and of “men [she’s] known.” No order is needed when baring one’s soul, and the fact that Bertram is willing to do so merits praise.

Approximately one third of the book, the middle third, is devoted to a seventeen-page prose poem called “Forecast.” A nervous woman, possibly Bertram, suffers from an intense fear of flying. It drives her thoughts, ironically, towards every article she can find on flight, plane crashes, plane construction, and flight history. Her fear pervades every part of her life, overcomes her attempts to suppress it, and outlives failed and unhealthy relationships. In a way, her fear becomes one of the only constants in her life. Her need to check the forecast every hour of the day on seven different websites, her constant searches and studies, these habits accompany her throughout her life where almost everything else changes. The final line of the poem is a surrender to the fright. “The only safe place to be was in a plane,” and the only constant in the author’s life is fear.

These pages stand in a striking contrast to the rest of the book. They rise from a fog of imaginations, a mountain in clouds. They are full of concrete settings, definite actions and reactions, as opposed to the more amorphous scenes of the other poems. It is as though the reader is allowed to come up for a breath, before returning to murky, simulated subconscious.

As she mentioned in “A little tether,” the men she has known play into the story frequently. Unsettling depictions of violence and sex frequent the pages, especially in the series of poems titled “Legends like these I keep keeping.”

    he made with the heat of his hands
    the night before our wedding
    made of my neck a bottle
    then ran me down the alley in nothing but
    a ghostwhite t-shirt & panties.

And then, later on in another “Legends” poem it reads:

    unfuckable. and don’t ever let a man fuck you up against an air-conditioner 
    I told you, & don’t ask me why, just don’t be the kabob on a shish, all skin &
    girl, ass against some window.

The alternating brutal and sensual details, alongside the explicit scenes, don’t so much hint at the speaker’s violent past, as much as they unfurl a host of chronicled dangers, a litany that bears repeating. Where the longer poems in the book have individual titles, “Legends like these I keep keeping” sets itself apart. Rather than it being just one poem, each page is its own moment, its own relationship. The legends that Bertram returns to are all relationships, each a different style, but all equally disquieting. Each is structured with a different form, tone, and voice, and each is a melancholy instance of trial and error, the experiments in Bertram’s deeply personal, scientific study.

Such poignant methodology is at the heart of this selection of Bertram’s poetry; it is an attempt to make sense of a life, a blending of experience, emotion, and things more indefinable. It is not an easy read, but it is a powerful one. It is a soulful collection, an acute and revelatory one. The poems never truly fit the mold of a confession, but they nonetheless work their way to a vulnerable reckoning. However, it is perhaps Bertram’s own “Homo narrans (iceberg)” that sums up Personal Science best:

    The glittering iceberg
    now not at all what I