Do Not Rise, by Beth Bachmann. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, January 2015. 72 pages. $15.95, paper.
Beth Bachmann’s poetry is morning light sliced by blinds, fragmented and illuminating. It doesn’t burn when it settles on your skin, but its warmth unnerves. Its brightness momentarily blurs all sight. This warm unnerving, this brightened blurriness draws readers from sleep into a realm of sensation and forces us to pay attention. It awakens us.
Highly lyrical and experimental, Do Not Rise almost reads as an antiwar meditation, except that its criticism of violence is too sharp and swift to ultimately be meditative. The strength and severity of Bachmann’s language and her thematic treatment of the physical harm people cause each other comes as no surprise to readers familiar with Temper, her poetic debut and exploration of her sister’s murder. Do Not Rise, however, expands Bachmann’s scope on violence as she comments abstractly on American politics and recent international armed conflicts.
Even before a reader enters the collection’s language, the titles found in the table of contents read as hyper-concise, hyper-conceptual poems. The fourth through eighth poems, respectively, are entitled “open war,” “garden and gun,” “muse of arms,” “shell,” and “shock.” The ninth through twelfth poems: “oil,” “spill,” “water,” and “and war.” This observation, paired with the end note that some poems were written in response to US Army Field Manual, prepares readers for the collection’s consideration and criticism of violence on an international scale.
When a reader does enter the language, they will find that water is a recurrent theme. It appears first in “crisis,” the collection’s opening poem. “The water wants,” Bachmann tells us, “out so open / your mouth and say, snow. / The water wants out right there / on the tongue.” Here, water is both active and passive. It has agency in its wanting but waits for us to release it. Water wants to escape from the body, wants this escape to be facilitated via speech.
This understanding of water, however, is fluid and changes swiftly. While water is, indeed, inside the body, Do Not Rise is more concerned with water as a body itself, separate from ours but vital to us nonetheless. Water as a necessity, as commodity. And commodity as a catalyst for conflict. “I forgot about the water. It’s all over the map.” Though Bachmann writes this in “and war,” she doesn’t forget about the water. Neither do we forget; she does not allow it. And though water is everywhere—is, indeed, all over—it is not available to everyone. Clean, accessible drinking water becomes a socio-political commodity, one that the powerful withhold from the poor.
“Some clouds,” Bachmann writes in “revolution,” “are all energy we / do not want everyone to possess.” Water—the large bodies that lap at continents, the condensation of clouds and its subsequent release as rain—is withheld. It is weaponized. What happens when we weaponize water is war. This is not a truth originating in Do Not Rise, but it is one that the collection forces us to acknowledge and reexamine. Bachmann’s language asks the question: is violence the only thing more renewable than water?
In “shell,” she writes:
Look at me.
the way two soldiers paint one another’s skin with wet hands until
nothing is left
but the eyes. The dead we burn; the living we bury in our faces.
Here, the wetness is water; the wetness is blood. The wetness is both the cause and the effect of violence.
She writes in “humiliation”:
Where are the women in this war? The long limbs of the trees stripped
are the limbs of the trees. You can’t have a war
without women. Where do you think all that blood comes from?
We can’t forget about the water, the women, the war. They are all over the map.
What is, perhaps, the most harrowing truth about violence that Do Not Rise forces us to confront is how it implicates us all. Violence is always a subject-object relationship; any and everyone have the capability to be both subject and object simultaneously. In “master, master,” we read, “when I fire, you fire. In close combat, it is now / or never.” The “I” and “you” are made the same through violence, an accidental coupling through destruction. The poem closes with this last line: “The solider is both brute and champion.” “Soldier,” here, is not a metaphor; Bachmann is directly referring to those who are in the armed services. But “soldier” is also a metaphor. Since the speaker is involved in the firing, Bachmann uses the “I” to implicate herself and, via the proxy of our readership, all of us as well.
She continues to carry this idea throughout the collection. She writes in “psyops,” “The reader is not unlike the killer: you could be / anyone.” Though the reader is likened to the killer in these lines, Bachmann also doesn’t let us forget that we are always the victim as well. In “meal,” one of the collection’s closing poems, we read, “Who belongs to this dead? Its leg / is confused with another leg. Toss it/in the pile for sorting.” This disassociation of the body and self, this inability to claim or assign ownership to the relics of life that have been war-ravished is the misfortune of all who have experienced violence. It is our collective misfortune.
When Do Not Rise establishes our culpability in the subject-object relationship of violence, Bachmann is not attempting to appropriate the experience of those fighting in armed conflicts or those who live in or have been displaced by land turned into battlegrounds. She is, instead, illuminating how violence is an interpersonal framework we have been taught to tolerate, to treat as inevitable. And maybe it is, but, more importantly, maybe it isn’t.
“ante-” is a poem that serves, in some ways, as a thematic thesis for Do Not Rise. The poem ends:
What can’t be burned can be buried. God before and god after
we bathed in the same water, you who knows all my secrets,
who killed who and where and why, I said, god,
we’re all hungry. You’ve got to eat.
It is true that we are all hungry. Or, to borrow language from water, we are all thirsty. And if it is also true that quenching our thirst runs the (inevitable?) risk of harming others, we need to be awoken to that truth. This is what Bachmann’s work—her poetic lines tight and blinding as strands of slanted light—is for: our awakening.
Emily Paige Wilson is an MFA candidate and graduate teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her poetry, translations, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Asymptote, Green Mountains Review, PANK, and The Raleigh Review, among others. She rules her life like a fine skylark and tweets @Emmy_Golightly.