The first poem of They Can Take It Out presents a recognizable scene: Halloween, children in synthetics, the speaker babysitting, reading, observing. But inflecting the voice is the specter of illness, which disrupts the security of the holiday and whatever memories or familiar images might attend it. Cheryl Clark Vermeulen’s collection takes stock of things that, like illness might, live latent in the body: layers of cities, loves, hungers.
Vermeulen also stretches the habitability of language, personalizing it as a sort of private record, but leaving room for us to enter in. And as her readers, it’s sometimes effortful to find footing in these lines, but it is nonetheless rewarding to rest in measured attention without reaching for certainty of meaning. They Can Take It Out challenges poetic structure and closure, or anti-closure—the body bound up in the mind and vice versa. What results is an ambivalent embodiment, a “vague organ.” This interrelationship of the poetic and the embodied reminds me of what the poet Lucy Alford calls “the small tears in the self” that result from the effort of attending to the moment—the physical change, maybe a strengthening, resultant from the effort of lyric exposure.
This collection belongs to a recognizable version of the real present. For one thing, there’s the familiar precarity of the climate: in “Thyroid and Other Matters,” a family leaps into a neighbor’s pool during a wildfire. Elsewhere in this section’s long poem, medical traumas and uncertainties corral, but don’t expressly define, the speaker’s relationship with her body. Tangled up in this physical sense of being is the dissociative effect of the third person and the eventual obscuring of the speaking-subject, the slow fading of the pronoun. But a measured reflection on genre or autobiography is embedded in this movement, too: “It resists journaling so diary backwash,” Vermeulen writes.
Within this scaffold of medical anxiety, They Can Take It Out does have a soft humor and a hopeful eye toward the future. Vermeulen clearly takes pleasure in language, and some of her poems hinge on what it means to write despite, to delight in words themselves and their definitions. “She writes to be here,” says the poem. And occasional profanity heightens the intimacies and relevancies of the poem without compromising this sense of pleasure and wonder. “No apology to beauty,” she writes.
And there is beauty in these poems. In “By Accident,” an expertly enjambed and rhythmic poem, a present intimacy meets a memory of a friend in a domestic space:
In the kitchen, my torso
lit by the water dispenser has an appealing sheen,
my body heat mixing with the cool water glass I hold
toward the light up to the lever which keeps
tempo. No ice spillage. Nothing revolting or egregious
but this surge that has sideswiped, no, supplanted
sex: the sonnet with so much volition, so many
luminaries deliberating their dilemmas, that I stay in
its light; my love, with your own, thankfully, tomorrow.
I read They Can Take It Out in a time during which I learned about the death of someone dear but remote. This is exactly the kind of negotiation that Vermeulen’s poems suggest: personal precarity, the precarity of the lived-in body, the precarity of being a person in a perilous world. For me, reading these poems during a time of abstract loss produced small tears in the poetry muscle toward some hopeful possibility of shift, thankfully, tomorrow.
They Can Take It Out, by Cheryl Clark Vermeulen. The Word Works, March 2022. 90 pages. $18.00, paper.
Anna Zumbahlen is a member of the poetry cohort in the literary arts PhD program at the University of Denver. She lives in Albuquerque, where she works as the University of New Mexico Press’ publicist. Recent events and publications can be found at annazum.com.