In her poem “Spring,” Mary Oliver writes, “there is only one question: how to love this world.” And, at first glance, Adam Crittenden’s poetry collection, Blood Eagle, doesn’t seem to have an answer; yet, by dissembling illusions, by using irony and precision to cut away the dead flesh of our delusions, these poems take the first step to finding what is real, what holds true meaning and value, and what doesn’t. And, maybe, even how to save it—after all, we remake the world in our own image, a truth Crittenden enacts by remaking the poems of others, by distorting, stripping, and augmenting the poems of Bishop, Creeley, Notely, Williams, Paz, and O’Hara. If we can remake the world, the way Crittenden remakes these poems, this collection presents us with a choice: will we be sacrifices or executioners? Will we be more than hopelessness and bleak acceptance when faced with a moral, and perhaps even literal, apocalypse?
In the opening poem, “The Ending is Forever the Same and That is That It Ends,” the speaker’s body is already preparing for the apocalypse, for sacrifice (or execution) as his “lungs spread backwards” and “do backflips until sleep comes.” Our bodies are all the same, more objects than living beings, and seem to be nothing but malignant “tumor[s],” playgrounds for our “brains.” Since we have nowhere else to go but down, we have death as a built-in escape, inertia as a self-destruct button; perhaps, if we truly shape the world we live in, we can remake this into an early alert or a reset switch, a warning that when we are everyone and no one, the protagonist and the antagonist, the apathy and violence belong to all of us. Where can we go when lost inside the wound of this realization?
In the poem “Triage,” the speaker “throw[s] a fistful of leeches / at the wound” only to realize we’re past simple bloodletting as a cure. Are we living in triage and don’t even know it? Do we evaluate and tag our tragedies based on severity, addressing the worst-case scenarios first and ignoring the smaller harms even though these harms, moments of apathy and hate, lead to larger, critical disasters? Is the end of empathy, of the world inevitable? If so, the speaker is right: “all we’ve ever done / is pretend to be human,” skated the surface. We have lost the ability to empathize, “the ability to copy / and paste / the husks of others onto [our] person[s].” In response to the questions everyone is asking—how did we get here, how did we let this happen—Crittenden shows us that this is how it happens: to be both embodied and “disembodied,” both present and absent, aware and oblivious to decay and tragedy.
Despite the blood, guts, and apathy distilled throughout these poems, Crittenden does not leave us without hope; even though the world is violent, “there is still happiness,” even if brief, that “reveals itself like a stain on dark jeans.” There is connection through the realization of death, that all our bodies are slowly committing suicide. In “Flowered Elysium,” some of us simply “hug the rapture” clinging to the what if and not the here and now, clinging to some hope of nothingness “until the I is no longer.” Is the answer to our apocalyptic selfishness and apathy, a ghostly, collective nothingness, knowing we will all simply cease to exist, and if so, what the hell, some might think, why wait? Why create or save or remake, why bother with anything?
If humans are nothing but flesh and bones for earthworms simply waiting in a desert for the end, as the second to last poem, “Remnants,” suggests, then we have brought about our own apocalypse, and there is nothing left to do but smoke and drink, puke and die. One of the smokers tells the speaker, “the whole planet will be dust soon” as he “suck[s] in, spew[s] a cloud.” Even in death, there is little hope that our bodies, whatever we leave behind, could nourish what comes later, what grows, if anything can, from our ashes. Is this to be our legacy?
In the final poem, “Blood Eagle,” the speaker waits for the approaching storm, the apocalypse, stating “we rationalize that our ancestors suffered / enough punishment / for the rest of us while we sit back and watch.” No one runs. No one takes shelter. Will the results of our actions, or inaction, only lead to our slow execution? The storm “vivisects” us, our lungs burst and become wings. The body lives on and no one knows why. And, yet, I think we do: a near-death experience, a resurrection and second chance reunites us, reignites us as if that was “the plan all along” that we just needed to realize that some responsibilities are eternal. Despite everything, the speaker maintains hope, saying, “strange, I knew this would happen / before it happened.”
Throughout this collection, Crittenden masterfully, darkly, ironically, combines the grotesque and the practical, breaking down humans into their parts “for accounting purposes,” determining what to donate or cast aside. In brackets, as if he doesn’t quite believe it (or desperately wants to), the speaker writes: “[We will all be objectified. We will all be seen as parts and not people. We can still find happiness in such a world if we look at the parts and not the whole.]” These poems remind us of what’s important—that we remake the world in our image; that what we believe matters; that inaction, as well as action, has consequences; that we build on the legacies of those who came before, and future generations will build upon the legacies we leave behind; that as Descartes said, “we do not describe the world we see, we see the world we can describe.” Maybe we need new language, a new way of seeing during these perilous times, when we seemingly have so much more to care about and seemingly less care to spread around.
Blood Eagle, by Adam Crittenden. Boston, Massachusetts: Gold Wake Press, February 2016. 100 pages. $15.95, paper.
Kara Dorris is the author of two poetry collections: Have Ruin, Will Travel (Finishing Line Press, 2019) and When the Body is a Guardrail (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming 2020). She has also published five chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, DIAGRAM, Harpur Palate, Cutbank, Hayden Ferry Review, Tinderbox, Puerto del Sol, The Tulane Review, and Crazyhorse, among others literary journals, as well as the anthology Beauty is a Verb (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011). Her prose has appeared in Wordgathering, Breath and Shadow, Waxwing, and the anthology The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016). Currently, she is a visiting assistant professor of English at Illinois College. For more information, please visit karadorris.com.