Sitting at a coffee shop, I flipped through E. Briskin’s linked collection Orange. Its speaker, funny and cryptic and sad, sits also frequently at a coffee shop, remembering their dog, mourning the loss of their dog, and pondering the metaphysics of such a loss. The Seattle-based author’s debut collection is comprised of hundreds of short poems that zigzag through time, ranging from zero words to small paragraphs, sometimes footnoted with the studies and articles used to bolster the existential paths they wander.
An age old question—How do we define existence?—is one of the collection’s guiding quests, with a particular emphasis on interspecies differences. One poem references an internet commentator’s hypothesis about the amount of fur shed in a dog’s lifetime. After some quick calculations, our speaker reasons half a pound of the deceased dog’s hair should still be lingering around the house. Then they conclude, joyfully: “There is still more of her!”
Strands of fur may not be able to lick your face or fetch a ball, but this transformed existence is still valued and clung to by our devastated speaker: “When your dog dies / the world decides / to divide itself into two: / the world of people / who understand grief / and those who don’t.” A dog has completely shattered the world of our speaker. This dog was derided by the speaker’s friends as “that fuzz-wiry rat thing,” that “mud-tailed drooler.” A dog is not human, but still exerts great power over our emotions, so the speaker understandably mulls these exchanges over and over. Still some say dogs are just dogs. But what is a dog? What about them makes us feel this way: their millions of smell receptors? their ability to make choices? That they can feel splinters and the sun? And does this matter, the speaker asks, “Does this change the nature of my loss?”
These attempts to rationalize and understand grief—to dignify being wounded by something as small as a rat, prone to drooling—are part of the grieving process and of life itself. But most importantly, these attempts highlight the ways love transforms us: “I am no one without sticks for dogs.” Or: “When I pet Hero, I dream I am petting you.” When vacationing at [BlankBlank] Love cabins, “we changed love to dogs. Violet’s Dogs.” Love makes us vulnerable, love can embarrass us, make us irrational. Similarly, “Love moves us to sacrifice at least a considerable measure of dignity and rank in the interest of elevating the other,” Wilson Carey McWilliams writes in Democracy and Excellence‘s “Minstrels, Kings, and Citizens: Mark Twain’s Political Thought.” “Parents clown with children; philosophers return to the cave; God descends to man. And in that descent, love finds its own excellence and higher nobility.”
There are plenty of moments throughout the collection where the dog in question grows blurry, suggesting they could instead be a former lover or other source of grief for our speaker. If dog is just metaphor, our questions still apply to other animals, humans, and life itself. Meticulously, as individual strands of fur gather into a body that is colorblind but loves an orange ball, life is actualized; so too, humans and poetry must answer to these questions. How are we? Who are we? A voice belongs first to a body, then to a language, reads a different poem by John Berger in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. We are first ourselves, then society. Something must become itself before becoming a group. Perhaps something can’t be missed until it is defined. Until it exists.
And it is through metaphor the speaker implores us to understand. See this verse: “We need you to explain ourselves to us!” Human, speaking to dog? Poet, to reader? Life, to another life? That’s the crux of it: life does not exist in a vacuum. The existence of another allows us to exist in contrast. All marginalized art pushes against the hetero, patriarchal, ableist, cisgender, etc., tradition: the fact that each review of Orange, including this one, has noted the lack of a defined gender presence in the speaker is example of that.
Our speaker writes things down but takes them back or crosses them out; corrections and annotations are made, sometimes trivial, sometimes flippant. But this book’s strategic arrangement and dizzying number of verses resists the easy, casual reading the conversational voice suggests.
While this collection requires strict focus to read properly, the multiplicity of ways you can read is a marvel. It will all mostly make sense whether vertically, horizontally, numerically, backwards, and so on. (Even the audio recordings of the book offer different options, organized by page numbers and then in chronological verse order.) I began reading first in a traditional order, page by page: verse by verse. Then I followed the story as I could, forming a zigzag across verses. On a reread, I started at the end to follow the middle storyline all the way through: compulsory verses. Each time I fit these puzzle pieces together in each possible format, they revealed new conclusions, new jokes, new meditations.
This organization is quite an accomplishment and is a beautiful reminder of what poetry can do. What poetry can be. And so too, the footnotes—articles and tweets are linked, asides are made, wherever possible, for study of the universe of grief. It is perhaps obvious to say this meticulous documentation reflects how we grieve: processing life in different directions, trying to make sense and reformat life without the thing that helped you understand life. Clinging to the formalities that provide structure to enable taking the first, small steps back towards the light. But the ability to construct such work speaks to the deep love that underlies, that warrants, such a grief. The love that, both in its heyday and in the wake of its ending, inspires us to construct our masterpieces. Grief, love’s last act. Orange, not E. Briskin’s.
Orange, by E. Briskin. Seattle, Washington: Entre Rios Books, March 2020. 260 pages. $18.00, paper.
Bianca Cockrell is a television producer and writer who lives in Los Angeles, the greatest city in the world. Her credits include work for Netflix, The New York Times, Lifetime, and La Repubblica. She serves on her local neighborhood council and, when not working on her first novel, spends most of her time chasing after the bus.