My Dead, by Amy Lawless. Portland, Oregon: Octopus Books. 79 pages. $12.00, paper.
My Dead is a poetry collection that stays with you. This isn’t a book of poems that can be read individually and easily forgotten. Each piece is somehow connected to the others. Every turn of the page creates a new reason to revisit what you’ve read. The collection invites you to stay and ruminate on what makes it so alluring, so haunting-in-a-good-way.
The book is separated into four sections: “Elephants in Mourning,” “One Way to Write a Sonnet is to Number the Lines,” “Shadow Self,” and “The Skull Behind My Face.” Each section has its own merits, but they all connect through motifs of water, earth, memory, and, of course, death. What is interesting about these often-used themes is the ways in which they’re employed. Water is life, for example, but also baptism, a prop in a mourning ritual, a way to return through rebirth or infiltration. By utilizing these motifs and making them new in every case, Lawless opens new ways of examining ordinary objects in terms of what they can offer to or be for the reader. Her poems sometimes verge on sur-reality, but the matter-of-fact diction and style keep them just this side of dreamlike.
“Elephants in Mourning” is a particularly profound piece drawing from actual behavior of elephants in the wild reacting to the death of a member of their herd: “When an elephant dies / The lover will approach and stand there. / When an elephant dies he tries to necessitate the other elephant …” Lawless uses this behavior as a way to access human behavior and memory, comparing the elephants to humans, humans to elephants; at times the elephants are the humans.
This piece is the reader’s invitation to begin asking what the elephants (in the room, perhaps?) are, who “my dead” are, and what places we, as readers, need to access in order to fully appreciate the poems that follow.
At first, “One Way to Write a Sonnet is to Number the Lines” feels like a dramatic shift from “Elephants …” because the tone and the surface matter is so different. This section contains eight poems with the same title, all lines numbered, yet little-to-no structure beyond that. It verges on off-putting if you are a staunch fan of formal poetry, but this configuration is part of the tone. These poems are the most intimate, the most vulnerable, yet the use of a repeated construction lends a sense of removal from their topics (mostly love/relationships), which can be freeing for the poet: the more confined the parameters, the freer they are to tell the truth. This section also contains one my favorite opening lines of all time: “Fuck off: I’m a poet …” (from the eighth sonnet). It’s offensive, defensive, self-preserving, and a call to action for those looking for excuses not to tell the truth. Lawless makes no apologies for what is being exposed and that gives her work power. There is no sense of the poet being held back by what has been deemed “appropriate.”
“Shadow Self,” a section of “stand-alone” poems, is where the real turn begins. Suddenly, the reader is visiting multiple places at once: the wilderness, New York, a hospital room, a foreign country. There is a constant sense of exoticism to pieces that could easily be dismissed as little more than visceral pastorals. Lawless lifts them out of mundane categorization by keeping the reader off balance with her cool, often wry, tone and fantastic imagery. From “Barren Wilderness:”
i can only have six pigs suckling on me at once
five really if I were honest with myself
to be an authority/a ham
are processes that happen
against the better wishes of the authority herself
Lawless closes the collection with another connected piece, like “Elephants …” The poem(s) in this section are introspective and suspenseful. There is fear of dying, of not being remembered, of not moving beyond the place the speaker is in, yet knowing that dwelling in one place can create comfort: “… Many things at once may slow down time and add layers of meaning to our interactions. Perspective is our meek station …” The reader arrives with the speaker to the conclusion that the only acceptable way to deal with death is to balance both the fear and respect of it, to learn to pay attention to what happens around it.
Overall, My Dead creates more questions than it answers, yet is so well-crafted that those questions are a way to hang onto the collection when the last page has been turned. Amy Lawless treats every thought and every poem with an equal amount of reverence and irreverance. With poem titles like “Cannibal Wedding” and “This is an Example of My Functionality” it isn’t hard to find those places where quirk and sadness intersect. It is never answered who the dead are or why the elephants—who never forget—are so adept at loss, but this collection is very much full of life.
Jillian M. Phillips’s reviews and essays have appeared on the Cellar Door blog, NecessaryFiction.com, and are forthcoming in others. Some of her poetry has appeared in Cellar Door, Jerry Jazz Musician, and NOTA. She is studying poetry at the University of Nebraska’s MFA-in-Writing program.