Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor

By Elizabeth Onusko


Red Paint Hill
April 2016

Reviewed by David Nilsen


Elizabeth Onusko's Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor is a unique and lush exploration of grief, incarnation, infertility, and, ultimately, life. After being diagnosed with endometriosis (after a series of frustrating and erroneous guesses and tests), Onusko struggled with infertility for quite some time before eventually conceiving a child. Portrait takes a serpentine (and circular) route through the stages of grief, flashing anger, fear, guilt, and a whirlwind of other emotions before arriving on the collection's far shore, exhausted but at peace.

The title poem sits near the beginning of the book, and sets the tone for the sharp grief of the collection with these lines:

. . . it's not your fault each time the story resets,

you fail to alter its course, and each time it ends,
the devastation seems both new and known

As Onusko walks us through fragments of her medical treatment—the physical pain, the multiple doctors who misdiagnosed her, the endless waiting in sterile rooms, the feeling of being reduced to a specimen for dissection—we see it is always the renewed confirmation of infertility that slices deepest. The temporary amnesia of hope wipes away the latest grief, allowing a vulnerable belief to raise its head, until "the bottom falls out from beneath you" once again. The painful consequences to Onusko's own body from the medical cause of this infertility, however, cannot be ignored, and she skillfully melds the emotional pain of her inability to conceive with the physical anguish that constantly reminds her of that inability, as seen here in "Pathology":

With a red pen,
the disease draws
inside my abdomen

a chain of volcanoes
erupting on cue
and rivers of lava
sliding across organs,
then hardening into rock,

traces on my ovaries
silhouettes of faces
that will never be

Rather than address her own pain, anger, and helplessness unremittingly, however, Onusko employs some curious images for amplifying and distorting her own physical and emotional distress without expressing it directly. Peppered throughout Portrait are poems that, at first glance, have nothing to do with the book's primary personal themes. These poems—essentially lyrical vignettes—are short fictions that tell of absurd hypothetical or fantastical scenarios: a walled kingdom at war with its own reflection in a giant mirror on a distant mountain side; bees disappearing at an alarming rate, prompting a king to order a census of all non-human life; a town that paints itself in chalk and replaces its sidewalks with gardens and Jesus statues. These read like the work of a less quirky, less mischievous Patricia Lockwood, and they seem nonsensical at first, or at the very least discordant, but upon examination serve as exaggerated blow-ups of the chaos in Onusko's heart and body. Just as large scale atrocities and disasters lead us to ask why? so do the earthquakes and tumults that assail each individual, privately or publicly. That so many of these vignettes portray societies or systems turning in on themselves, betraying their own, makes the metaphors even more poignant. In one of these poems, replicas of the head of each citizen of a kingdom are cast in glass and filled with water and guppies. These are set on the kingdom's wall, then dashed to the ground in an ill-conceived attempt to trick an enemy kingdom, the guppies suffocating in the dirt. Is this kingdom Onusko's body, the glass replica heads the genetic copies of her own DNA, the guppies possible lives snuffed out as the eggs meet their ends? It certainly works to read it on that level, just as it works as a picture of seemingly pointless bodily betrayal even without the direct one-for-one analogy.

In the midst of these fantastical extrapolations of her internal distress, Onusko picks also at issues of theodicy, the silence of God in the midst of pain and God's logical complicity in its arrival. In "How to Be Almighty," a stinging poem early in the collection, Onusko instructs her readers to build a replica of their home town and populate it with living dolls, destroy it with a tornado for fun, and then take their sweet time listening to their prayers, if you listen at all. Just watch them mourn, bury, and rebuild. The theme isn't revisited often, but whispers appear here and there, showing the reach of her search for answers in the worst of her grief.

As Onusko's grief cycle rolls around and around through its stages, we return always to the simple sorrow following each confirmation of infertility. In "Winter Storm Warning," she writes of a forecast of calm weather that never comes through:

snow comes instead,
commanding our attention

like a symptom
the moment it debuts

and when, to a set of them,
a name adheres.

Like the hour an embryo
embroiders itself to me

so delicately
and the day it falls away.

If there is a more succinct and devastating expression of the grief of infertility, I have not come across it. Compounding the pain, of course, is Onusko's belief she is at fault, as her own body refuses to do what so many others are able to. The poem's closing lines are like a body blow from an invisible fist: "Convince me / my body is not the enemy."

Without warning, the skies do clear in Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor. Onusko is able to conceive. The final few poems of the collection shoot upward with life as a very small life forms inside the poet at last and is not lost as the others. In "Symbiotic Quixotic," just pages from the book's finale, Onusko tells us "A planet is forming inside me." She details the genesis of this expansive ecosystem, the way a baby is a self-contained universe its progenitors can't even fathom. Two poems later, in the collection's penultimate piece, we're shown a rapidly developing saga of a decaying structure that is wiped out by a flood, then an ice age that kills off wildlife whose tracks are mistaken for hieroglyphics by archeologists. This is exactly the sort of fantastical poem that earlier in the book would have devolved into ruin and waste. Here, however, the archeologists pick apart the ruins of the structure buried under the ice and "find a dollhouse demolished / save for the nursery, / inside of which a baby is swaddled." Under all the debris, the scars of Onusko's body, the anguish of her story, something tiny is alive and growing.

"Origin Story," the last poem of the collection, is a hazy portrait of the exhausted rest and joy Onusko has found on the far side of misery as she reflects on the mythical origins of her new daughter. One could call the poem euphoric were it not for the melancholy that tints the edges of its verses. Joy does not erase the pain fought through to arrive at it. But ultimately, in Onusko's case, joy does, in fact, arrive. Reaching as we do the gentle peace of this final poem and the few just before it, it is easy to cast backward and reduce the pain of the dozens of poems that lead to this finale. I've heard new mothers describe how the rush of oxytocin immediately following childbirth make the hours of pain during labor seem to diminish and fade from memory. Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor could be said to follow this same pattern, the faceless tumult of screams and weeping in the book's main body falling away as we stare into the final poem's eyes in the soft dawn light. Portrait, for all its death, is ultimately about life. For all its grief, it is ultimately about love. It's amazing how much the present reality of love can alter the memory of loss.