Lifting Myself by My Own Toes, a debut collection by BD Feil, reviewed by Jen Schneider

Lifting Myself by My Own Toes, written by BD Feil and published by Finishing Line Press, is a powerful force—one that leaves us curious about, if not optimistic for, experiences that lie ahead, and contemplative about the past. The collection propels while remaining bluntly and squarely grounded in periods of time and places no more. The work and its unique juxtaposition of the familiar with the unexpected both inspires and conspires.

As I read (then reread) the collection’s 56 unique poems, my thoughts wandered then bounced from places and people I haven’t visited (either physically or emotionally) for years. I also found myself thinking of public figures, figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Booker T. Washington, for reasons I am still wrestling with, while also revisiting personal and rarely contemplated experiences from years long passed—including walks in cold fall rains, road trips to nowhere, and backyard gardens. The reasons, I suspect, are tied closely to the subtle, almost imperceptible power and appeal, of BD Feil’s pen.

Oprah Winfrey has encouraged others to surround themselves “with only people who are going to lift you higher.” Booker T. Washington once said “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” In Lifting Myself By My Own Toes, BD Feil does both. Through strings of syllables turned sentiments turned stanzas, Feil both lifts others and rises higher amongst must-read collections.

The debut collection offers both mirrors and moments of reflection. While the pieces are grounded in Feil’s Midwest origins, many explore issues bounded by neither time nor place—issues including the plight of, and flight from, the familiar. We surely see ourselves in bits and pieces of the collection. Whether in “Leftover Sonnet” (“Too many bras on backs of doors”) or “A Reading” (“a clown in a routine / trying to lift himself by his own toes”). Or, perhaps, as a part of “February Loans” (“my reek of wet wandering dog”) or “Monster” (“Yes, you can / Always feel them. You can always in a way feel them”).

The poems are both timely and timeless. As in “And Yet,” each piece quietly pulls us in close, and then whispers: 

oh silent for the most part
without apparent movement
I might say like a minute hand
or a small dune
and yet it comes on

The collection’s poems are compact (most no longer than a page), and contain a silent and undeniable power. Form and length vary, with some of the shortest poems most likely to last longest in memory, thought, and reflection. One need not be from or have any familiarity with the Midwest to find recollections and suggestions of the familiar in Feil’s words.

Memory and its many idiosyncrasies are a consistent theme. From “Words” (“This was explained to me once so that / it’s stayed with me past memory”), to “Memory” (“Many things I remember / they insist I shouldn’t”), the pieces engage with memory in ways as memorable as the concept itself. The subtle power of the imperceptible is another constant, as well as one of the work’s undeniable strengths. “Small Town” is, perhaps, the perfect illustration of the work’s remarkable finesse and ability to explore the profound while grounded in the utterly relatable and otherwise mundane:

The drawer hangs
right out the back
of the old wooden desk

though there’s nothing to see
for all to see
but look come see

From “Grain Elevators”:

From the fields then there was no vista

then you were sadly mistaken my friend

to “The Stars”:

So listen. Everyone’s a pain in the ass.

There is no other way.
And now is the time for the sighing.

Feil lifts—then lifts again.

The collection presents a narrative of persistence (in tales and endeavors as disparate as cold river currents, backdoor cats, and librarians) and resilience (in ways both literal—business trips, children’s gardens, and red apple diner—and figurative—the accumulation of grievance in “Laurels of Perseverance”: “the long slog into perpetuity / as we all fold into horizon.”)

The collection, presented in four parts, is a satisfying lift. In Part I (“well-meaning strokes”), Feil presents 13 poems that explore the many ways in which words and memory both lift and linger. Feil opens with recollections of words (now lost to memory in “Words” and “That Is This”) and wanderings (in gardens and “Noli Timere”). Part 2 (“savages and monsters”) includes 16 pieces. Part 3 (“red-knuckled apples”) includes 12 poems. Part 4 (“now is the time for the sighing”) presents 15 poems. Each part wrestles with timeless questions of time and place and, together, present more than a single whole. The work is complex, layered, and revealing. Even more so with subsequent reads. Whether exploring the peculiarities of physical anatomy, the abstract meaning of longevity, the perplexity of memory and words etched in minds not yet fully matured, or the everyday challenges of keeping track of names and relations (as in “Old Dog at the Red Apple Diner”), the collection prompts reflection and promotes a forward-focused sense of wonder.

As Feil takes us across an entire spectrum of experiences and emotions, the work is, ultimately, a celebration of the human spirit. No matter where you start or where you end, the collection will leave you, somehow, uplifted and hopeful, despite “Noli Timere”’s “walk backward to move forward” and the heavy melancholy intertwined with many of the collection’s recollections (from “Nothingness”: “Already we’ve lost it if we must / Put a name to it”; from “Tender Bits”: “As in all things that matter / in fights at meals with love / do it heartily and savor”), even if—and when—“hopes like bats will go a-flyin’.”

Lifting Myself by My Own Toes, by BD Feil. Georgetown, Kentucky: Finishing Line Press, May 2021. 84 pages. $19.99, paper.

Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania. Recent works include A Collection of Recollections, Invisible Ink, On Always Being an Outsider, and On Habits & Habitats.

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