Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review of Rachel Adams' chapbook "What Is Heard," by Barrett Warner

Rachel Adams writes poems with her tongue, not a pencil or a keypad. Her hands are always too busy—driving a truck from Arizona to the Berkshires, or renovating a house by performing hundreds of exquisite demolitions to its insides. In “Catoctin Mountain Traversal” Adams—the speaker—picks up “items usually stepped upon— // the pine cones, sharp, pockmarked with catacombs, / the fallen bark, pressed hard into dirt, / and wet, embedded leaves, spread out and crushed.”

Adams’ debut collection What Is Heard is another beautiful chapbook produced by Red Bird Press whose editors have been eating lots of spinach since January. After six years of a book here or there, they’ve added fifteen to their muscle catalog through August.

The chapbook’s pace is so unhurried that Adams’ first poem doesn’t appear until page eleven. Back when poets only spoke and breathed their words, line breaks were where the air rushed into you, swelling your ribs. Adams does this well in “What You Bring Along,” only departing from pentameter when the stanzas crescendo and climax and the reader suddenly wants more air: 

newspaper-separated, eggshell blue,  
all tethered against the rattles
and jolts of the road.

It’s a journey poem, as are most of hers, and the detail feels so vivid because the motion—her lyric—and the long extended metaphor don’t ask the images to carry more weight than necessary. I’m overcome by the balance in Adams’ poetry. This poem is partly an escape from Arizona, “truck bed stacked with nested furniture, / boxes of bromeliads tucked one against / the other, roots secure within their tight-packed / bark enclosures, the kitchen set…” These are belongings of hearth and home, and subtle turns such as “one against / the other” and the reference to bromeliads, plants known for what botanists call inferior ovaries, all suggest some sort of mysterious run to safety and freedom. The speaker has an intended route, but is very willing to consider revisions, veering here and there until finding a place backward in time: 
[your ears remembered] 
the gravelly tramp of feet stepping in unison there, 
synthetic jackets squeaking against the branches, 
and the picnic quilt, mothball-tinged, 
spreading out along the underbrush, scattering 
the sparrows as it unfolded beneath a puzzle 
of hand-sized leaves, safe from the rain.
The laying of the quilt—a puzzle of hand-sized fabric—over the puzzle of hand-sized leaves, spreading it along the underbrush so soon after the reader learns of synthetic fabrics squeaking against branches, and the feet stepping in unison as opposed to one against the other—it all creates this seamless drift through parallel realities, natural and human, where only divine eloquence is spoken, wordlessly. And yet, there must be words, which is why Adams exists.

The outside world coming in, the inside world going out. It happens all around us. Adams is quite handy with a maul, tearing things down which stand between: “The walls were next: a daunting expanse / of more flowers—rhododendrons against the blue— / dulled by forty years of cigarette smoke, / car exhaust drifting in through the tick air, / breath, and sweat particles.” Adams whacks down the plaster trying to discover something, police horses in 1904 “grazing by the squat, stone mill-houses / and our shingled one—pre-vinyl siding, pre-plastic, / clean and straight, solid as a henge.”
Are you even ready for the third poem? Yes, it’s that kind of book. Read it with a gun and a pack of sandwiches, to paraphrase Thom Yorke. I’d have been so wondrously lost except that Adams is very good with a compass, giving us East and Northernmost when it seems to matter, as if following a map handwritten on the thigh of a virgin boy. In “Sedimentary” her poem is a “narrative of lives / all bounded by the confines / of a great, smooth plateau.” In “Sleepwalking” a boy leaves his bed, climbs a fence and maps the whole city to it center: “pausing in vast cargo-ship silhouettes, / face turned toward the smokestack steeples, / until dockworkers began to arrive / and a creeping blueness / swelled low across the sky.” The boy retraces his steps and goes back “to his brightening bed, its cold blankets twisted, / somehow calmer, somehow knowing / the routes, the patterns, / that he did not know awake.” All of the states of being seem so fluid in Adams, inside and outside states, sleeping and waking, landscape and psycho-pathology.

Poetry mixes memory and desire. Memory relies on routines, but poetry wants to get us out of routines. What if there weren’t any routines to begin with and everything were all flowing? In “Northerly” Adams addresses the reader directly: “Tell me the sound— / that flicking against the mouse-bones / of the skull—of memory, of folding-out road, / of possibility.” Being a gambler, I tend to be crazy with the chance of one thing happening when probably something else will happen, but Adams’ magical, speculative reach is so believable I didn’t flinch when some deer gathered around one of their departed to have a funeral. Nor was I thrown when it turned out to be a herd of Hindu deer and they had to arrange a pyre, one hoof still sticking out under the branches and twigs.

When I complained once to my buddy Ed that I had to read five books in a month he looked at me incredulous and said, “It’s poetry, you can read it in an hour!” And that’s certainly true of a chapbook, but my, what an hour, to spend it with What Is Heard, and what a difference it seems to make to look out my bedroom window and see myself reading these lines in a hammock between one very old, and one youngish tree:
Sitting on the rough floor, looking out—
down the hill to the river blackened
by raincloud-reflection, and down to the sharp
gray ridge beyond, like a raised hand—
we can see the slow approach
of the dark between us,
a stifling that is subtle,
still mixed-through with calmness,
like a sound mixes with the air.

What Is Heard, by Rachel Adams. Red Bird Chapbooks, 32 pages, $10. 

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