Jeanann Verlee’s Racing Hummingbirds: A Review by Megan Scarborough

Racing Hummingbirds ought to come with a warning: Choking Hazard. I read some of it while eating my dinner: I don’t suggest this. The collection is raucously confessional, full of blood and guts, sex and booze. It’s poetry with its teeth bared, entrails hanging out, completely and unapologetically naked.

This is a book ready to take a look at the underbelly of life.   It is a book about dysfunctional, destructive relationships, about abuse, butcher, murder, and rape. A lot of hearts get ripped out of a lot of chests — literally as often as figuratively — and that line gets blurry real fast. If you read the first couple poems and find yourself imagining them in a slam competition, there’s a reason for that: it’s a collection meant to be read (maybe yelled) aloud.

But though the book brims with violence, it gives no clear answers about who’s at fault. It’s more complicated than that, as even the victims have their guns drawn. Often the reader arrives at the scene of the crime to find all parties dripping with blood; good luck untangling the mess.

Verlee’s work often draws from unexpected sources — everything from newspaper clippings to vintage photographs, as in “Girls for Sale.” Her sympathies lie with the excluded, downtrodden and powerless, and her evocations are sympathetically imagined and often heartbreaking. One of the strongest of these occurs in ‘The Dolls,’ which centers on Josef Fritzl’s daughter, whom he locked up and raped repeatedly, forcing her to bear his children. Verlee makes something beautiful and wrenching out of the horrifying subject, and the last lines stare at you like a creepy doll’s face: “Father look! / they all have your eyes.”

Verlee is brave in her use of form, speeding from prose poetry to free verse and back, playing with long lines and short, each poem ranging anywhere from three pages to three lines, some tightly packed and others full of space and air. The point of view careens from person to person, often within the same poem. Sometimes, dream-like, one person seems to represent or morph into another. The speaker’s young daughter in ‘Untruth’ suddenly transforms into the speaker’s mother, raising questions about the legacy of violence and heartbreak. ‘God Replies’ takes on the Louise Gluck-style voice of an omniscient creator, who surveys recent world events but leaves us with little more than ambivalence.

While God makes an appearance now and again — along with communion wafers melting on tongues, floods, prophets, miracles, resurrections and other Judeo-Christian themes — there are no easy answers here about salvation. It seems more likely that the depravity and violation will go on, the hurt lashing out in retaliation. It’s a book that traces the cycle of violence from cause to effect and back. That might explain the dizziness.

Yet it’s not a book empty of love, and though jarringly realistic about the world as it actually is, it contains hope. Some of the most startling moments come when we discover a speaker’s unconditional love for someone else pushing up like weeds through a city sidewalk. ‘Holy’ describes the perfection of a single moment: two lovers lying on the floor of a bookstore (reading poetry, no less.) It seems improbable that this is where joy finally resides, but there you have it, fleeting and unexpected. And doesn’t that feel a lot like real life?

At times, the collection borders on self-indulgence. Nobody wants to assume autobiography, yet I can’t help hoping Verlee changed the names in ’40 Love Letters’. Some of the poems read like dirty laundry lists — fearlessly but disturbingly public.

Anne Sexton famously noted that, “Poetry led me by the hand out of madness.” I warn you now: Racing Hummingbirds will lead you by the hand into madness. But if you can hang on long enough, it will lead you back out too.

Racing Hummingbirds is available now from Write Bloody.

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