A Lean-To Upon a Once-Was

Paula Cisewski’s poetry book, The Threatened Everything (Burnside Review Books), is on the smallish size, trim-size-wise.

It fits easily in my small hands and seems to be littered with hearts—although upon closer inspection those hearts are less than sweet. None of that prepares me for the first poem, “The Apocalypse Award Goes To.” Variously, each section of the poem offers, then withdraws the award to:

First, “my newly betrothed and me . . . It was already the apocalypse, and we already felt appropriately minute.”

Next, the award is given to “most grown people,” who are described as “kaleidoscopically unsafe.” Then, the “animal kingdom,” then “doctors who specialize in treating Prolonged Apocalypse Stress Disorder,” so that finally the poem includes everybody. But these are just the bones of the poem; it’s shot through (literally, in one case) with interruptions. This is a poem for this moment, I think—which, given the time invested in writing a poem, revising, getting it into some editor’s hand, pre-production, and publication of a book, shows some strange sort of prescience on the part of the poet. That I should find it in my hands right when I needed it. Because the poet stopped me to say, “For statistically what percent of the parents pushing strollers on this sunny boardwalk have guns tucked away in holsters? For bullets rip through every modern poem, even the ones where shot or gunis not stated explicitly.”

These are just the bones of the poem; it’s shot through (literally, in one case) with interruptions.

As I was digesting that, thinking of a friend who I recently learned is nearly always packing, who I’ve begun to hug more carefully, the poem clobbered me with, “Another patient in this waiting room switched on the news and I immediately began leaking. Oh, well. It won’t be the first time a poet has leaked through her own poem.” The poem talks about the practice alarm for the apocalypse. It asks, parenthetically, “What if we need the alarm while the practice alarm’s going off?” and later, “(Those sirens are just on TV, aren’t they?)” These are the questions of worriers and I’ve embraced my suppressed worrier-self of late. This poem is the frontispiece for the entire collection—mixing technology and pop-culture references, sly jokes, relatable fears, and the constant sense of unease and disbelief that has come to characterize the current political and cultural moment for many of us. As the poem says of the apocalypse, “It’s a slow burn. Some of us have mothered whole people through it, others have died of old age in it.”

This poem is the frontispiece for the entire collection—mixing technology and pop-culture references, sly jokes, relatable fears, and the constant sense of unease and disbelief that has come to characterize the current political and cultural moment for many of us.

Cisewski’s book thereafter is divided into three sections: Field Guide to Austerity and Surroundings; The Wolf/Cave Problem; The Laughing Club. In the second section, twins are everywhere. There is a “good one” and a “bad one” and they are the same person, finally. The speaker of the poem “The Good One” is like that soft-sewn children’s toy that has the face of Little Red, and the Wolf, and if you flip it over, also the Grandmother, all in one. After one kills the other waiting for the “old woman” to arrive, she realizes fingerprints differ even on identical twins, so she undertakes to sever hands and sew them on, becoming all one person in one body: “whether or not I had ever been / the good one no longer mattered.” Other imagery from that tale recurs in other poems in this section—the kitchen shears, the animal inside the girl-speaker (like an echo of Carter’s retelling of the tale). All this reminds me of Carol Clover writing of slasher movies, “What makes horror ‘crucial enough to pass along’ is, for critics since Freud, what has made ghost stories and fairy tales crucial enough to pass along: its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings.”

The final section of The Threatened Everything ends with laughter, a cathartic kind of laughter. It is not joyous, but the kind of laughter that occurs after too much stress, too much pain, when the body and soul is wrung out and doesn’t know what else to do. In the poem “Suddenly Laughter” it’s described as an “intersection / at terror and comfort.” Laughter is a “familiar wrecking ball” that “pummels / your heart’s hollow / business center.” The poem ends with the word “relief,” but we don’t feel any relief. Rather, we’ve decided to laugh, because we don’t know what else to do anymore.

The final section of The Threatened Everything ends with laughter, a cathartic kind of laughter. It is not joyous, but the kind of laughter that occurs after too much stress, too much pain, when the body and soul is wrung out and doesn’t know what else to do.

Similarly, in the poem “Humans, Dogs, Apes and Rats” we have a description of rats and the insistence that they laugh. That they have laughed “since before / humans even resembled // ourselves.” Before our culture, or technology, before we gathered to exchange ideas, “or irony, way / before irony.” And then, for those of us uncomfortable with rats, there is the description: “a wriggling pink pile / of bald rodent babies, // the size of several / opposable thumbs.” This is laughter that rings true and unsettles, as many poems in this section ring true and unsettle. Like the poem that includes Obama’s joke about Orange not being the new Black, but of course that’s exactly what happened, and it’s not so funny after all.

But I can’t end on that note, although this was a poetry collection that seemed to meet me where I was, deliver gut-punches I wanted to receive, right in my pale fish-belly. I have to tell you about my favorite poem. In the first section is the amazing “Revolution Prairie” which takes up the imagery of weeds and root systems and limbs and desire.

Consider the right of way of weeds,the root system’s defiant grip,

that they’re only called weeds becausewe didn’t buy them with money

or decide where to plant them.A flowering without

a boss, like our lovepopping up everywhere

(I wish I could read the whole poem aloud to you . . .) Suffice it to say, the weeds burst forth; the poem concedes a mower could cut it all down—the weeds, us, the words that are weeds that burst out of us like sentences of things that need to be said, popping up everywhere. But the poem ends with a call, a promise, and a declarative: “Burst forth with me in this narrow vista / of the threatened everything.”

The Threatened Everything by Paula Cisewski

The Negative Space of the Page

In my Survey of British Literature class in college, I remember learning several new words reading Milton.

He’s credited with introducing several words to the English language, but I remember one he didn’t invent: amanuensis, “a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.” The image is familiar – blind Milton, leaning back in his chair, surrounded by his daughters. There’s a painting in the New York Public Library that shows Anne, Mary, and Deborah, each engaged with their father’s work. Milton wrote Paradise Lost, and later works, with the help of a number of amanuenses. His daughters, a nephew, and some people paid to do the work. But I was most interested in his daughters then – and now.

The stories that make up our histories are ever shifting. One story is that the muse would visit Milton during the night, and he’d repeat lines over and over to himself, getting them right, committing them to memory, until someone arrived to write them down. He described his own process in several places. The youngest daughter, Deborah, worked with some biographers later in her life, so some of her impressions may have survived. Other biographers wrote of how the daughters hated their father: his demands, the tasks he set before them, his hypocrisy about the very notion of liberty, his re-marriages, the household where he kept them prisoner. Milton was a man of his time perhaps. Perhaps somewhere between the voice in blind Milton’s head, and the hand that wrote down the lines, some whiff of Anne, Mary, or Deborah survives.

Emily Bowles’s chapbook His Journal, My Stella explores a similar situation in some ways. The relationship between Esther Johnson and Jonathan Swift is introduced in a prefatory note to Section I. “Miss” establishes some basic parameters for their relationship. It is a fatherly, mentor relationship. She is eight. He is an “authority.” Later, perhaps, their relationship changes. The poems in Bowles’s collection traverse the grid of this shifting relationship, between powerful established man, and “pliant, pleasurable” Stella – who wants to be seen as “more than a child, better than a woman.” The deftness of these poems is the way they are sketched only, paired with modern-day experiences and relationships, stretched across the negative space of the page, leaving the reader more gaps than knowing. The repetition of “Miss” to signify young unmarried woman/girl, and “miss” to signify something lost, and the line-ending that splits “miss / take” recur over and over to fragment idea and thought and concept. Who can know what happened in Milton’s household? Who can know what was in Stella’s heart? Or Swift’s? The opening note makes clear: “This is and is not something we now refer to as grooming.”

The deftness of these poems is the way they are sketched only, paired with modern-day experiences and relationships, stretched across the negative space of the page, leaving the reader more gaps than knowing.

Another classroom wells up at me in the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais.” The speaker has “missed / The Point.” The speaker has gone off topic, writing about something she shouldn’t have, questioning something outside of the poem. This is not an approved topic. “It is not valid,” the “[male] professor” points out. The final stanza of the poem is arranged in opposition to itself, a form that happens again and again here: “you” aligns itself with one margin, but the story occurs on the other margin, in the gutter of the page.

By the end of this poem, the speaker has become fragmented, both second-person (a person to see through) and an “I” still inhabited. She is two-personed, unable to withstand the weight of male authority, but uniquely situated to watch her failure and write it down.

She is two-personed, unable to withstand the weight of male authority, but uniquely situated to watch her failure and write it down.

While the story of Stella and Swift forms a framework for Bowles’s collection, the poems aren’t confined by that relationship. Many of the poems don’t reference that relationship explicitly but could be about it. Or not. They navigate the see-saw between specific and universal, but all traverse scaffolds of power, and specifically the power between men and women, that differential in romantic and sexual relationships, in marriage. Each poem calls forth “an act of sexual / textual / violence.” I said the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais” reminded me of a classroom – it does. A graduate school classroom where I asked if we could talk about a poet’s ethics, and the professor said that “wasn’t an interesting question.” An undergraduate classroom where a visiting poet told a round table of eager women poets that “no one wants to read about these things”; he told us, we earnest women-college students at our glossed wood table to “think about your audience.” We had been rapt.

Power and authority can have long-reaching effects; power and authority can silence.

In the article “Experts in the Field” published in Tin House, Bonnie Nadzam writes about abusive men in the writing world – and she touches on exploitive practices and the long-term effects they can have on students’ writing, careers, and voices. Power and authority can have long-reaching effects; power and authority can silence. As mentors, those who seek to harm can control their victims into their future. They are gate-keepers – they control access to jobs, residencies, contracts, networks. Most importantly, they can control access to our very selves, and the way we see ourselves. Through their reputations and classrooms and programs, they can “[teach] the rest of us how we should tell our stories.” In several poems, Bowles gives texts, criticism, judgement literal weight: “I wore the allusions, / those critical garments, / until they didn’t fit anymore.”

Bowles takes on structures beyond the classroom and criticism, exploring marriage and the home. In “Cedar Waxwing in Our House” the speaker finds kinship with a cat, noting the way we choose kitty litter and grain-free food to further divorce the creature from the wild – leaving us all “neutered.”

          Domesticitycan feel like a form ofterrorism, and sometimesa feral urge creeps inon mouse feet or cedarwax wings.

There’s that fragmentation again – separating words we expect to see together, perhaps the way the bird’s wings were separated by jaws and claws. In the short poem “I Went Missing,” Bowles makes of words fragments, so they can be read multiple ways. I like to imagine hearing this, as well as reading it, inserting a long pause at the line breaks, giving the page its due.

It was a misstaketotakehis name. I wentmissing when Imisstookmyselffor his Mistress.

Perhaps the speaker of this poem is Stella, perhaps it’s the poet, perhaps it’s any married woman who regrets marrying. Or not regrets entirely, but just wonders about things lost in the joining. Things like names and the identities they signify. I appreciate the slight form, the symmetry of the lines.

The final section of Bowles’ book, Section IV, is titled “Missed.” The note describes how Stella fell ill, died. Swift lived on and mentions of Stella continued. Perhaps she lived on in his fiction, fictionalized. Perhaps she animated Gulliver’s Travels. A poem from this section complains “I am an envelope, sent back and forth / between men . . .” Perhaps whoever survives ensures their version of the story survives, but it isn’t that simple, not between women and men. Not when the context of history has its own rules, in its own places, and one party holds more cards than the others. Not when the negotiations take place behind closed doors in dimly-lit rooms. Witness Deborah, Milton’s surviving daughter, whose voice still wasn’t strong enough to trouble her father’s legacy much.