There is something miraculous and mysterious inhabiting Hannah Stephenson’s debut poetry volume In the Kettle, the Shriek. Through Stephenson’s meticulous style, there’s a world being constructed within its pages, a world of couplets and tercets and blocks. She uses the precision and exactitude of a watchmaker to populate this landscape with beautiful details. Then, just as minutely, this world dissolves in an epic, intense collapse. Through a beautiful narrative arc, the writer crafts a gorgeous, intelligent collection.
Stephenson’s ear arranges her poems tightly as walls of brick and mortar, individually and collectively. “Telepathy” provides a splendid example of her use of concise, concrete language:
I want you to think of a deck of cards.
Pick a card. Picture it. Pick only one,
don’t make this harder that it is. Black
or red, and what is the suit. You know,
the suit, diamonds, hearts, spades, the other
one. Clover-type thing, a deciduous tree.
The clipped rhythms and short sentences produce a beat appropriate for a book of things being either created or deconstructed.
The volume opens with “Town.” The poet writes, “It starts with a river.” She then describes the town’s emergence in a series of thirteen couplets. While we might relate this particular stanzaic formula to the presence of Adam and Eve, the sense that couplets convey a particular intimacy is indisputable. And these pieces are full of relationships: between individuals, between people and things, buildings and their contents. The poet records these connections with a sharp, attentive eye.
Stephenson’s writing is self-assured and confident, evident partly because she does not employ questions marks in the volume, although word order often implies their necessity. A striking example occurs in “Calling,” where the author writes:
… What caused
you to drop the anchor
back there, or over here.
When you chose, did you
feel that you were the one
choosing, or was a voice
loudly commanding you.
Similar instances of missing question marks occur in many other poems. One possible explanation for using this device is that the “questions” can be interpreted as statements. For example, the phrase “What did I hear today,” if read as declarative rather than interrogative, acquires different meaning. If Stephenson’s reader employs this shift in perspective, the poems acquire a prism effect akin to turning faceted gemstones in the light. Her grammatical ambiguity creates delightful wordplay and interpretative latitude for her audience, allowing them to construct this world for themselves.
Quite possibly, the writer excludes question marks because she does not sense choices and free will actually exist. In “Treehouse for God,” she writes:
All language is shorthand
for a real thing. Listening
for meaning is the act of
interpretation. Which sound
is important, and which
silence. When God says
Build me a treehouse, you
have to decide: how literal
is this message.
If the reader opts to interpret the last two tercets as declarative, then the missing punctuation leaves no question about the decision the speaker must make; the message obtains a forceful literality, and no options exist.
The book’s cover depicts a ghostly entity emerging from night snowfall. This otherworldly presence is evident in “The Apartment” and “Calling,” where a sense of possession enters the volume. “Go get wood / and bring it in here. And matches, / the fireplace says. In “Little Black Dress,” Stephenson describes the garment as: “Your must-have, your go-to, / a dark being that loves how / you are put together, how you / are assembled.”
There is a poltergeist-like feel, an ethereal mischievousness physically observable in “Serious Stuff,” which, when turned vertically, resembles paint running down a wall. Other examples include “Ghost Stories” and “Enchanted/Haunted,” as the volume arcs into decay. In “Pressing Ghosts,” a candid record of insecurity, the speaker observes:
Your hesitation before unlatching
your guitar, the way you cringe before
bringing your fingers to its strings
if anyone else is with you. Each fear
dripping within you, as water droplets
form at the end of icicles and fall.
Rachel Contreni Flynn, in her volume Tongue, beautifully mirrors this anxiety in “Pulling it Off:”
… I fake nearly everything. For years
in waking dreams, I’ve pictured a henchman
in a trench coat approaching, jabbing his finger
as I elbow my way to the office in knock-off shoes.
Faker. Fraud. Do- and Know-nothing! he hisses …
Deterioration of language initiates the unraveling of Stephenson’s world. “In Sink,” with its homophonic word play (“In sink with one another. / In black hole. A vortext, // a message spun of shards / and the air to carry them.” demarks the start of deconstruction, destruction. “First Cavity” and “Long Time No See,” continue this deterioration. In “Curb Your God,” Stephenson illustrates:
Gravitate to the shore, to the edges
of land. Go to the water, go in it,
fall off the globe. California ends,
disintegrates: loose soil, sand, saltwater.
“Fraction” reflects her sobering fatalism: “There will be a world with no you in it, / and it won’t be lopsided here without you.”
As Stephenson moves to closure, she composes in “Structurally Sound:” “How softly should beginnings begin / so they mark a shift in sound, yet / do not startle you away, listener.” In “Bang,” she summarizes the volume’s arc. “One future: we will keep expanding, / the universe stretching, loosening,” she begins, and later elaborates: “The other future: we will retreat, slowly / at first. A galaxy hemmed, inching // its skirts back.”
Stephenson builds her microcosm one line at a time, and likewise undoes it with grace and beauty. “See how natural endings are,” she asks, revealing the lovely details of ruin. “… [A] whole house scuttles away, / dragging the block behind it / like a billowing, sparkling nebula.” And the readers sail amid the flotsam, laughing at the glorious display of lives disappearing and pulling them into the infinite, wonderful darkness.
In the Kettle, the Shriek, by Hannah Stephenson. Boston, Massachusetts: Gold Wake Press. 86 pages. $15.95, paper.
Paul David Adkins lives in New York and works as a counselor there. He served in the US Army for twenty-one years.
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