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Review by Adam Sol
Grief is one of our first reasons for inventing poetry: the urge to inscribe a loss that cannot be recovered. Gilgamesh’s Enkidu, Homer’s Achilles, Jeremiah’s Jerusalem, Shelley’s Keats, Ginsberg’s mother, Olds’ father, Mary Jo Bang’s son – all have been memorably recorded and mourned in verse.
But your loss is not necessarily my loss. The hard part about writing from grief is that most of a poet’s readers will not know or care about the poet’s mother or brother or son or city the way the poet does. And so, if the poet is to draw successfully on our emotions, something of that loss must be transferred, rather than merely reported, to us.
Two recent debut collections of poetry attempt to convey, through emotional perception or linguistic flair, a sense of the mind struggling to cope with devastating loss. The Spell of Coming (or Going) revolves around the tragic death of the poet’s brother. Although the specifics are not described in any detail, Buschi at her best can evoke the complex emotional landscapes that make families unique and fascinating as they confront suffering. In “Clocks,” a grieving father spends his time “bent over his box of stopped watches.” “When the Wreck Has Been” describes the strange, sad horror of dispersing the ashes of a loved one: “It’s your body I toss from my hand, / wipe on my trousers, you who I chased // down streets as a child, always just beyond my reach.” These moments evoke the tragedy that haunts and compels The Spell of Coming (or Going).
At the center of the collection, “The Mirror Box” functions as a central metaphor for the poet’s effort to evoke and eventually move beyond her grief. A daughter makes a mirror box for her mother, reflecting the lost son/brother back to the mother, the mother to herself, and both to the poet with the hope that if they are “made to see a reflection of what’s missing [. . .] she can tell this son to move in and out of sight.” The reader witnesses the family’s grief and emotional reconfigurations, and the poem is able to recognize the limitations of its own efforts as well: “A daughter can’t make a mirror box big enough to hold her mother’s grief.” These are the moments when Buschi is at her most perceptive and compelling.
As the quotations above reveal, Buschi’s talents are more perceptive than musical, and her image-making can be less than sharp. There’s a lack of specificity that can be frustrating – this reviewer counted six references to generic “birds” in the short collection, while cars and other objects which could give the poems clarity and vividness remain fuzzy and inexact. Still, it’s emotional rather than imagistic or linguistic precision that Buschi seems to be striving for, and in that sense The Spell of Coming (or Going) is often successful.
Brecken Hancock’s debut collection Broom Broom, published by Coach House Press in Toronto, is also dominated by the death of a family member – in this case, the poet’s mother. But Hancock’s confrontation with this loss is in some ways more fraught and complicated than Buschi’s, because her mother suffered from a rare form of dementia that dramatically altered her personality, so that, as Hancock writes, “my mom kept dying and dying. It seemed she’d never finish.” The question of when Hancock’s mother died is a troubling one and the complications provide Hancock with the opportunity to consider theoretical concerns about identity that are both intellectually challenging and emotionally charged. Hancock has written about what she calls “forensic confession,” and the elements of shame that trail along with this term are well in evidence here.
Hancock balances out references to Roland Barthes with a rich sonic palette that can be playful and absurd even while referring to pain and shame. Sylvia Plath is a forceful presiding spirit here, with multiple allusions and a sense of exposure that few have matched since. The riotous “Evil Brecken” has so much fun with the b, e, k and n sounds in her name that it’s easy to miss the ferocious self-accusation and disgust-with-the-sexualized body that underlies it all: “How I’m aching to dissect / the feckless veil of her.”
Broom Broom also has moments of lightness and wit, highlighted by two semi-factual explorations of the history of plumbing. But the mother’s transformation, deterioration, and death is the presiding subject matter, so that even lighter pieces maintain a dark undertone, and the theme of disappearance and confusion cycle back to the disappearance and confusion of the mother, as well as those who grieve her. The long prose poem “Once More” that explores the details of the loss and death feels like an inevitable and necessary culmination of the collection, a final cathartic truth-telling.
There are a few moments when Hancock’s virtuosity runs away with her, and one feels the occasional attempt of a young poet to demonstrate her control of various forms (villanelle, sestina, sonnet, haiku), even when these do not lead to the strongest poems. There’s a risk that Hancock’s musicality can occasionally cross the line into self-indulgence, a voice in love with its own music. And yet because this virtuosity is almost always in the service of such harrowing material, pursued with such honesty and risk, one can forgive the occasional flight of fancy.
In short, while Mary-Lou Breschi’s The Spell of Coming (and Going) is an able addition to the poetry of grief, Brecken Hancock’s Broom Broom adds to and ultimately transcends the subgenre, making something new and strange that also announces the emergence of an exciting young poet at the beginning of a significant body of work.
Adam Sol’s fourth collection of poetry, Complicity, was recently published by McClelland & Stewart.