Review of Humanly by Stevie Edwards
Portland: Small Doggies Press, 2015. 21 pp. $12.00, paper.
This is a book that, as a reviewer, I found difficult to approach as a review cannot hope to explain the visceral power of the whole. It is a popular cliché for writing about mental illness and trauma to be called brave or unflinching, but the poems in Humanly deserve something more than a cliché. These poems are, well, deeply human, exhibiting the myriad of qualities that word entails—frail, bold, desperate, feisty, and miraculous. From the title of the opening poem ("Luck, Luck, Noose"), Edwards creates a juxtaposition of the everyday mundanities of living (the title's play on a childhood game, cheating at euchre, noodles and canned peaches) with the "dread clothes" of desperation and suicide. The end of this poem broadcasts "I wanted to keep it: life, the embarrassment" as both a confession and a battle cry.
Later in "To Houdini," Edwards tells us all that "the world wants to see you struggle [...] There must be real danger," a nod both to the magician and the people in the world who are "waiting to clap and gasp" at the salvation of those in crisis—as if it is a trick to survive trauma and suicidal ideation. This first section vacillates between despair and hope deftly, leaving the reader with a sense of empathetic confusion. The last poem in the first section, the title poem for the collection, is a bit of a turning point, a proclamation of sorts that the earth that has swallowed so many others will not "be a grave, not tonight."
The middle section, entitled "Take," reclaims the speaker's power through sensual imagery of the body, but also deals with the physical scars and remnants of decisions regarding the body. In "Blurred Lines", the speaker revels in the physical— "we, the body, we the spirit of fast//are licking the salt off necks again,/answering the questions/of splayed shaved bodies with questions://Can you live without pleasure?"This Is Just to Say" turns the famous William Carlos Williams poem about plums on its head (no pun intended) in praise of cunnilingus.The speaker dares the traditional male rescuer in "Come Ye Faithful Savior Man" by welcoming him to "the coliseum of my body,/the last shit show before the dreck/innards of Lake Erie summon you/into their drown and doubt,/dread sirens," taunts him for being "bored /limp holding manicured hands at matinees?" However, there is a looming sense of dread in these physical pleasures, calling one lover "an ugly night garment/I wake in" and sharing "I always thought I'd rage if a man/did this to me, slit his wrists or mine,/but instead I board the second train/and pick hangnails until they bleed..." Despite efforts to celebrate the pleasures of the body, the body itself becomes a part of the betrayal.
The third section of the book is titled "Fang and Fantasy," and its first poem "To Mania" sets the tone for a set of poems about illness, trauma, and recovery. This poem is followed closely by "Pretty Death Myths" (which gives us Gorge, Steering Wheel, and Barbituates as its section titles), "Throng Hour," and "Epiphany or Die" which ends with the lines "I had one choice, to scream/or die. E, M, I'm sorry/I woke you. I wanted to live." The speaker takes the reader through the psych ward, into protection and forgiveness of the self, ("You can call me/all my nastiest names. I am shutting myself into my quietest room,/barricading all the roads with heavy furniture./You'll have to find a new girl to ruin."—"Dear Critic) and the struggle to live in the everyday world. ( "Act like somebody raised you." -"To Do:").
The fourth section, titled "Anchor," highlights images of community, a nostalgia and longing for connection. In "Fragile Globes," the speaker wants "to adore the world,/to drink my ginger tea and grin/at every gentle thing I have known/and will know." In "Scheherazade" and "Spell for Rachel's Eightieth Birthday," the speaker reaches forward in time, grateful for "The years we cashed/playing chicken with our bodies/and time, licking whiskey/off our elbows until we collapsed/into welcome mats,/never repossessed our names" and that there will be "Enough time to paint our nails black and fill vases with lilacs./Enough./Soft clothes of ghosts/who are not us."
Humanly paints a portrait of a life examined in detail, no matter how difficult those details may be to recount. Some may call the book confessional, but it reaches beyond that label to touch the reader on an electric level, pulling us through the speaker's journey with both trepidation and joy at the strong voice speaking through the fog of loss. Edwards says it best herself:
then aren't we just dumb
humans: sweat-soaked, sweet-
seeking, and in some books saved?—
You can purchase Humanly here.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013) as well as six chapbooks, most recently Encantado, a collaboration with artist Matt Kish from Redbird Chapbooks forthcoming in April. She is an assistant poetry editor for Extract(s), and her second collection is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2016.