Tuesday
Jan292019

CEASE

By Beth Bachmann 


 

University of Pittsburgh Press
September 2018
9780822965572


Reviewed by Elizabeth Knapp


 

On November 26, 2018, at a campaign rally in Biloxi, Mississippi, Donald Trump made the following statement regarding his infamous border wall:

The wall has started very, very substantially and in fact you saw the other day the wall stopped everybody and it was only the section that's now under construction. They've breached it but only momentarily, it didn't take long. Momentarily. That was called a very momentary breach.

A week later, news outlets around the world released video footage of a group of Guatemalan migrants dropping two small children over an eighteen-foot tall border fence between Arizona and Mexico into the arms of family members below. Then on December 8, Jakelin Caal Maquin, a seven-year-old migrant girl from Guatemala, died while in Border Patrol custody.* These "breaches" and the tragedies that so often ensue are among the subjects of Beth Bachmann's third book of poems, CEASE, a collection that feels all too timely and relevant in the midst of the current situation on our nation's southern border. While none of the poems reference the border situation specifically, or any particular war or crisis, for that matter—they seem to exist in a kind of timeless present—the parallels between the book's central themes and what's happening there are striking, even prophetic. Formally, the poems in this collection refuse to remain on one side of the aesthetic border; they continually breach the line between poetry and prose, private and public, personal and political. Unsettled and unsettling, these poems challenge our very definition of poetry, as they construct and then deconstruct the walls of their own architecture.

In a recent interview in The Rumpus, Bachmann addresses this architecture directly, as she considers the concept of the wall from an abstract expressionist perspective: 

One of the things I considered for the cover of CEASE was a photograph of the prototypes for Trump's insane border wall, which are extremely strange—a large gray block against a bright blue sky. They reminded me of Rothko, how the colors seem so permeable at the edges and how much of the wall poems are about that permeability, the ineffectiveness of any wall or border to actually contain. 

Mark Rothko and abstract expressionism are apt visual equivalents of Bachmann's poetic project in CEASE. As in Rothko's abstract rectangles of saturated color, the edges of the poems bleed into one another. Blocks of unpunctuated prose poems sit heavily on each page and seem to accumulate weight as they accrue, broken only by the longer "wall" poems that begin each new section. Images recur throughout the collection like a particular color palette; tonally, the book reads more like the richly deep blacks of the paintings in the Rothko Chapel than it does the bright oranges and reds for which he was known. Subjects do not emerge so much as impressions do, echoes across poems and sections that surface like the detritus of dreams. A certain obsessiveness carries through the collection as a whole, a circling around ideas and subject matter, which manifests through a set of high frequency words, including but not limited to the following:

Body

Water

Fire

Flower

Blood

Ocean

Silence

Dirt

Hands

Peace

Birds

Fruit

Fingers

Love

Snake

Stone

Mouth

War

Flood

Field

Tongue

Bombs

Light

Meadow

Lungs

Gun

Bright

Nest

Heart

Wall

Sky

Bridge

Head

Oil

Air

Window

Bone

Spits

Space

God

 

While these words may seem quite conventional, even quintessentially Romantic, their deployment across the collection takes aim at traditional notions of the lyric. In "nature," for example, Bachmann reinvents the Romantic pastoral as a kind of feverish, post-apocalyptic prayer: 

the landscape is triggered with post-romantic stress the world is unmastered 
again all we see is light from the bomb terror comes before horror because there 
is no reason not to be afraid flesh only has its true color in the open air holy god 
trouble you are sublime only you could take shelter in the bright sky put your 
hand over your mouth terror is in the imagination

Here and throughout the book, the final phrases of the prose poems act as anchors to help reorient the reader after the dizzying experience of reading them in succession. Their aphoristic quality lends the poems a familiarity that counterbalances the terrifyingly unfamiliar landscape of the collection as a whole: "what we don't know won't kill us" ("at present"); "whether or not we know how to kill holy mercy we know how to bleed" ("shame"); "there are so many ways to keep from dying" ("my war my way"); "please be the death of me" ("insofar as"). 

While the prose poems serve as rooms in the architecture of the book, the "wall" poems delineate its contours and uphold its structure. Paradoxically, they simultaneously deconstruct that architecture by opening up the dominant form of the prose poem. Although still unpunctuated, the "wall" poems break the phrasing into lines, allowing for space and breath in opposition to the breathlessness of the prose poems. They also merge all of the principal binaries of the collection—light/dark, war/peace, personal/political, public/private, individual/collective, tribalism/globalism—as they test the permeability of real and imaginary borders. In the final "wall" poem, the speaker laments, "where am I to find you without the wall," and later, "your memory is now in your imagination / your memory is now in my imagination," as she harkens back to Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" from the first "wall" poem: "something there is that does not once but it / no longer holds." Just as Frost's speaker would like to know "What [he] was walling in or walling out," Bachmann's speaker recognizes that the boundary is an artificial one, and that "beyond the wall [is] a series of walls" that must be contested and dissolved in order to "touch the ideal form of the cage," which is the physical body itself: "each body its own boundary." Only in this dissolution can true human connection and empathy occur. "I want to hold you everywhere," writes Bachmann. Through the space created by their breach, these poems hold tight to the world. 

 

 

 

* Author's note: Since this review was written, a second migrant child has died at the border. On December 24, 2018, eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo from Guatemala died in a New Mexico hospital, the second child fatality in U.S. immigration custody in under a month.