A Lean-To Upon a Once-Was
Paula Cisewski’s Writes Poetry for “The Threatened Everything”
Paula Cisewski’s poetry book, The Threatened Everything (Burnside Review Books), is on the smallish size, trim-size-wise.
It fits easily in my small hands and seems to be littered with hearts—although upon closer inspection those hearts are less than sweet. None of that prepares me for the first poem, “The Apocalypse Award Goes To.” Variously, each section of the poem offers, then withdraws the award to:
First, “my newly betrothed and me . . . It was already the apocalypse, and we already felt appropriately minute.”
Next, the award is given to “most grown people,” who are described as “kaleidoscopically unsafe.” Then, the “animal kingdom,” then “doctors who specialize in treating Prolonged Apocalypse Stress Disorder,” so that finally the poem includes everybody. But these are just the bones of the poem; it’s shot through (literally, in one case) with interruptions. This is a poem for this moment, I think—which, given the time invested in writing a poem, revising, getting it into some editor’s hand, pre-production, and publication of a book, shows some strange sort of prescience on the part of the poet. That I should find it in my hands right when I needed it. Because the poet stopped me to say, “For statistically what percent of the parents pushing strollers on this sunny boardwalk have guns tucked away in holsters? For bullets rip through every modern poem, even the ones where shot or gunis not stated explicitly.”
As I was digesting that, thinking of a friend who I recently learned is nearly always packing, who I’ve begun to hug more carefully, the poem clobbered me with, “Another patient in this waiting room switched on the news and I immediately began leaking. Oh, well. It won’t be the first time a poet has leaked through her own poem.” The poem talks about the practice alarm for the apocalypse. It asks, parenthetically, “What if we need the alarm while the practice alarm’s going off?” and later, “(Those sirens are just on TV, aren’t they?)” These are the questions of worriers and I’ve embraced my suppressed worrier-self of late. This poem is the frontispiece for the entire collection—mixing technology and pop-culture references, sly jokes, relatable fears, and the constant sense of unease and disbelief that has come to characterize the current political and cultural moment for many of us. As the poem says of the apocalypse, “It’s a slow burn. Some of us have mothered whole people through it, others have died of old age in it.”
Cisewski’s book thereafter is divided into three sections: Field Guide to Austerity and Surroundings; The Wolf/Cave Problem; The Laughing Club. In the second section, twins are everywhere. There is a “good one” and a “bad one” and they are the same person, finally. The speaker of the poem “The Good One” is like that soft-sewn children’s toy that has the face of Little Red, and the Wolf, and if you flip it over, also the Grandmother, all in one. After one kills the other waiting for the “old woman” to arrive, she realizes fingerprints differ even on identical twins, so she undertakes to sever hands and sew them on, becoming all one person in one body: “whether or not I had ever been / the good one no longer mattered.” Other imagery from that tale recurs in other poems in this section—the kitchen shears, the animal inside the girl-speaker (like an echo of Carter’s retelling of the tale). All this reminds me of Carol Clover writing of slasher movies, “What makes horror ‘crucial enough to pass along’ is, for critics since Freud, what has made ghost stories and fairy tales crucial enough to pass along: its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings.”
The final section of The Threatened Everything ends with laughter, a cathartic kind of laughter. It is not joyous, but the kind of laughter that occurs after too much stress, too much pain, when the body and soul is wrung out and doesn’t know what else to do. In the poem “Suddenly Laughter” it’s described as an “intersection / at terror and comfort.” Laughter is a “familiar wrecking ball” that “pummels / your heart’s hollow / business center.” The poem ends with the word “relief,” but we don’t feel any relief. Rather, we’ve decided to laugh, because we don’t know what else to do anymore.
Similarly, in the poem “Humans, Dogs, Apes and Rats” we have a description of rats and the insistence that they laugh. That they have laughed “since before / humans even resembled // ourselves.” Before our culture, or technology, before we gathered to exchange ideas, “or irony, way / before irony.” And then, for those of us uncomfortable with rats, there is the description: “a wriggling pink pile / of bald rodent babies, // the size of several / opposable thumbs.” This is laughter that rings true and unsettles, as many poems in this section ring true and unsettle. Like the poem that includes Obama’s joke about Orange not being the new Black, but of course that’s exactly what happened, and it’s not so funny after all.
But I can’t end on that note, although this was a poetry collection that seemed to meet me where I was, deliver gut-punches I wanted to receive, right in my pale fish-belly. I have to tell you about my favorite poem. In the first section is the amazing “Revolution Prairie” which takes up the imagery of weeds and root systems and limbs and desire.
Consider the right of way of weeds,
the root system’s defiant grip,
that they’re only called weeds because
we didn’t buy them with money
or decide where to plant them.
A flowering without
a boss, like our love
popping up everywhere
(I wish I could read the whole poem aloud to you . . .) Suffice it to say, the weeds burst forth; the poem concedes a mower could cut it all down—the weeds, us, the words that are weeds that burst out of us like sentences of things that need to be said, popping up everywhere. But the poem ends with a call, a promise, and a declarative: “Burst forth with me in this narrow vista / of the threatened everything.”