A Shotgun Life

By Amye Archer


Big Table Publishing
August 2011

Reviewed by Ansley Moon


Amye Archer's A Shotgun Life takes you to the precipice, throws you off, and walks away. From the first poem, "Ex," and the first two lines: "I am not your ex / I am your 'former'" she challenges all relationship notions. We witness the demise of one relationship and its subsequent divorce, and the birth of another relationship and the unexpected motherhood that follows.

Family is central to the book. "My Family History" is a recounting of all the siblings in one family:

Numbers Three and Four—
twins, not the kind that split
in the egg.
fraternal, occurring externally....


Numbers Seven and Eight
dead before they hit
the toilet water.
no names
          (but still they count).

The poem ends with a ninth unmentioned sibling that committed suicide. This poem provides a fractured family history. Each family member is remembered not by his or her name, but by his or her place in the family's legacy. By writing of the departed, Archer creates a voice for the silenced.

Archer skillfully renders the emotional landscape of arduous situations in "Pink": "There's something magical about peeing / on a white plastic stick." In "Morphine," the speaker reconstructs her world and her body after a double pregnancy:

The train rocks and slows,
lights dimming, heads bobbing slowly against
fingerprinted windows.     
We are slipping in an out
of consciousness,
like the night I had my babies,
and they carved
a seven inch smile across my stomach.
A morphine drip will make it better
drip, drip, drip.
and it did.
drip, drip, drip.

In the same poem, she writes of the gory details surrounding childbirth: "because I have to learn to stand again / because she has to catch / the remnants—falling from me." 

Archer calls attention to a serial killer by the same last name in "Archer":

She and I,
we share a name
a moniker metastasizing
over the hundred years
between us.
An ancestral anchor
slung over ours shoulders
dragged across
Dangling from the doldrums of justice
we hang our heads heavy
with the dull ache of our past crimes.

The dragging in the poem mimics the landscape of a divorce, but also the other Archer's surname, through being widowed and remarried. The speaker is not afraid of her own monstrosities, and the "ancestral anchor" that both women share is a trope for the rest of the book. Familial ties might bind us but they also illuminate who we are.

Archer forces us to rethink our relationships not only with family members, but with strangers in "Left:"

You are riding my ass
Fast and hard
All the way up
          The interstate.

The temporary relationship is strained but intimate:

I pull to the right
Pardoning you
Sashaying from your anger
Rolling from your grip

The speaker's tone shifts to an apologetic and fearful one and her attachment to this unknown driver mirrors the loneliness in earlier poems like "Who I am in a Traffic Jam":

Who I am in the traffic jam
is the thirty year old
fresh faced divorcee
in the newly leased red sedan.
driving all over the map
refusing to go home alone.

These poems drive us down "the darkening road we've yet to meet" ready for strangers or people we already know.

In "Po-Tee," a young child learns of poetry:

Today I taught you how to say 'poetry'.
'po-tee' you spat back—
Your small lips pushed together
Tight and deep like a volcano
spewing your two syllables.
the misfire brewing like magma
The glowing lava sliding
From your lips
I am covered in your ash
The dust of your disinterest.

The child's disinterest is echoed in the speaker's desire for the father to write or understand poetry in "What if my Father Were a Poet?" where a father and child discuss poetry over Denny's breakfast:

She would find us an hour later
yolks solidified and chunky—
still struggling to find a slant rhyme
for syrup.
(I would use cheer up).

Both poems represent an urge to share poetry with non-poets but also highlight the poet's often solitary place in the world.

Overall, Amye Archer's A Shotgun Life is a fierce little chapbook that will make you climb back, bruised but better because of these poems.