Book Review

by Cathryn Hankla
Mercer University Press, 2023


The prose poems in this Abecedarian collection, where the titles follow the order of the alphabet, function like the “fisheye” lens mentioned in the opening poem. Time, place/space, and point-of-view contract and change as image and metaphor metamorphose. These poems are both surreal and plaintively, emotionally resonant, evoking lyric poetry’s most heartfelt traditions as well as the risk-taking ethos of prose poetry. They are organized both associatively and through the sheer momentum of the poet/reader/speaker moving through time: “When it rains, it rains on everyone, and I am drenched in memories. Merciful Jesus, let’s go only forward, never back.” 

These poems inhabit a self-aware space gesturing constantly toward  “[waking] from a dream of dreaming” where the speaker “cannot tell where I am in levels of reality” though she knows “I am still somewhere.” They are, as they tell us, all of these realities and dreams at once. They contain multitudes. Here is a list of images from the book that could be considered definitions of what the book is trying to be:  

“a deep cave filled with wonders by other names,” 
“gaps in deep spacetime,” 
“yolks of pure gold,” 
“water not water,” 
“[j]azz . . . cascading as it rolled,” 
“a cherry smash of sleeping and waking,” 
“stories like shuffling cards,” 
“a live chicken in a paper sack,” 
“an absence pointing to the thing,” 
“an edge culture,” 
“[l]ike moving water, my tiger, tiger,” 
“the moonlight of this moment,” 
“[s]hy black bears,” 
and “the odd-numbered third harmonic of a xylophone.” 

They are often concerned, like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, with the tactile associative magic of language itself, pushing up against the limitations of words and shooting through to the other side, into a playful ur-tongue where the prose poems become an abstracted definition for their individual titles. The poem “Black Pepper,” for example, is filled with percussive, open vowel sounds in the the words “toppled,” “high tops,” and “cinderblock” and is a bit a cinderblock itself in its visual presentation on the page, containing strata of memory and association as it skips from the speaker’s childhood cat “Tiger” (who weaves in and of these poems in true cat-like fashion), to a childhood art project, to a speaker “fascinated by adults who kissed,” and who “dodged red ash my dad flicked from his Kents.” The slant rhyme present between “kissed” and “Kents” shares a sonic logic with the “[b]lack pepper” that “looked like dirt flecks and stung my tongue.” To paraphrase Hopkins, the images/metaphors in this collection could be said to rhyme, as well as the words themselves. In the end, the speaker in “Black Pepper” vows “to give up writing so I can write. To give up protestation, so the giant cat can tip me over.” These poems ask the reader for the same surrender, with the hope, with the ideal being an openness, an unsteadiness, a return to wonder where we too could be tipped over into something grand and strange. They are, to quote Stein, all “[l]ovely snipe and tender turn, excellent vapor and tender butter.”

A poem titled “Concern” features, fantastically, a “little stingray creature that flies like a sparrow.” In “Contested Chicken” a “fully plucked and headless” chicken “[raises] a raw wing” to “ring” the speaker’s “bell.” In “Giant Black Bear” a “giant black bear [occupies] all of space” and then “[steps] over the speaker” as it goes “stomping in the distance.” The reader is admonished in the next poem to “pull up the rope” attached to “an anchor that might snag far beneath the boat.” Reader, the boat might be the poem, but so may the anchor. 

Consider “New Testament,” a short exploration of the virtues of metal paperclips and how the speaker’s “mother left a paperclip to a certain page in her New Testament,” though which page/verse is never revealed. Or the linguistic playfulness of “Odder,” a riddle about an “Otter” but a play upon both the characteristics of this creature (“slicker than a flicker and fetcher to fishes”) as well as the very American pronunciation of the “t” sound as the “d” sound. Hankla’s work is like the “dream sickles” we encounter in the poem “Saving Lives”—a joke, an image, a meta-commentary on the form and formlessness of language, where the poet-speaker is busy “combining syllables into tinctures.” On one level these poems operate like that old nonsense-sense song “Mairzy Doats,” which is quoted in the book. They ask us, “Wouldn’t you?/ “wooden shoe.” 

These poems defamiliarize the world so that we can encounter it anew, in all of its beauty and absurdity (“I don’t understand west highland terriers. . . . I don’t understand my heartbeat.”) They are, as Edward Hirsch described American prose poems, “kin to parable,” constantly upending our emotional and imaginative sense of the world. 

Hankla affirms both the strictures and waltz of language in “Lesson #3,” which consists of a list of things the speaker doesn’t understand. Each sentence starts with “I don’t understand . . .”—“I don’t understand this table. . . . I don’t understand people in shorts. . . . I don’t understand trees. . . . I don’t understand my body as a body.” The repetition allows the ear to start to hear that liminal space where language breaks down into sound, to divorce meaning from sound, to exist in the realm of the unfamiliar. These poems defamiliarize the world so that we can encounter it anew, in all of its beauty and absurdity (“I don’t understand west highland terriers. . . . I don’t understand my heartbeat.”) They are, as Edward Hirsch described American prose poems, “kin to parable,” constantly upending our emotional and imaginative sense of the world. 

The ignited fire of “stories that flick the light on and snap it off like a blown match” in “More Stories” breaks into light again in the poem “With Sticks” near the end of the collection, a poem filled with hope for human connection: “It’s called making a fire. . . . With enough friction or one long match this girl scout arrangement will sizzle, and you can hand me a reason to be.” There’s humor in these poems, and love, and filial affection and complexity. There are fears and family tragedy where the speaker’s mother “wasn’t afraid but should have been.” The speaker asks in the poem “Fear,” “Fear, my fear what are you made of?” but the book offers us an acknowledgement of our shared mortality and many reminders of the delights to be found along the way. The poem “Quixotic Facts” asks, “I wonder if the stars look down on us as we look up.” This book offers “magic . . . to comfort a child out of the darkness of a father’s torment,” a “brick house [heaving] a steamy sigh of a Southwest Virginia ‘Italian feast night,’” which may not be “authentic so much as my mother’s version. Still, it tastes good to us.” 

I do not presume to have caught all the jokes and shimmering layers of allusion in this book. I am sure there are many Wittgensteinian wordplays, patterns, and intentionalities that I missed, as with reading Poe, Calvino, Nabokov or Stein, all writers central to my studies in the creative writing program at Hollins College, where Hankla was a transformative teacher for me. However, there are moments when I think I have some ideas about the aesthetic and philosophical principles of its arrangement, as in the poem “Waves” where the speaker says her mind is “in pools of iridescence or murk, something sharp but shiny. That’s where we turn toward each other.” Or in the description of skipping rocks in “Flushing”: “I pitch a flat rock and it skips, skims, bounces before it sinks.” Or the title poem’s assertion that “boundaries are illusory and already collapsing.” Or the way the poem “Marsupial” celebrates “Bringing everything to light one thing at a time.” The poet is the “Stratigrapher” of the poem by the same name, and this book contains layers (or strata) of images/memories/ideas that accrete within each poem and across the collection itself: “Unlike buildings I defy time. I breath air continually.” A metaphor for this book’s larger project might be found in “Swan”: “Old tires once buried behind the house sifted under a lush garden but eventually surfaced.” 

Hankla’s visual art also uses this concept of accreted time and information, carefully built up through meditative process. She paints minimalist/modernist abstract paintings that explore delicate gradations of color and pattern, that reward the long contemplation with hallucinatory resonances of line, color, and shape. Hankla has said her paintings are “experiments in pattern and color; they rely on combinations and re-combinations. I draw inspiration from patterns, music composition, the natural world, cloth swatches, and various symbolic systems, including sacred geometry.”

Field Patterns (detail), painting by Cathryn Hankla
Acrylic on canvas, 18" x 24"

There is a connection to be made between these prose poems, which even echo the shape of a painting in their rectangular or square block shape on the page and her paintings dense with a color palette that is both vibrant and complex. The repetitions and joyfulness found in these paintings are also found in these prose poems. Both luxuriate in the writerly/painterly process, in the nuts and bolts of the artform itself. Hankla seems to be saying, “Here is a game about slant rhyme. Here is a game about how the eye relaxes and focuses on patterns” 

And perhaps there is something distinctly Appalachian in these quick-witted and often funny poems, in the way they balance subversion, the avant-garde, and the human heart all at the same time, in the way they make incredible craft knowledge and work ethic seem effortless. They call to mind, for me, my grandmother’s polyester crazy quilt, somehow, made from carefully saved scraps of work shirts and sewing remnants, or hearing Wayne Henderson flat-pick and tell stories—beautiful, strange, sophisticated, and utterly without pretension. As the poem “Vampires,” tells us, “I learned a long time ago that it’s really galaxies that are immortal, along with holiness and kisses.”

Annie Woodford is from a mill town in the Virginia Piedmont and now lives in Deep Gap, North Carolina. She is the author of Bootleg (Groundhog Poetry Press, 2019). Her second book, Where You Come from Is Gone (2022), is the winner of Mercer University’s 2020 Adrienne Bond Prize and the 2022 Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry. She was awarded the Jean Ritchie Fellowship in 2019.

Read all of Still: The Journal'past reviews


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