by Alex Rodriguez
Lizzie Harris, Stop Wanting (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2014)
Brian Foley, The Constitution (Black Ocean Press, 2013)
At some point in any life that’s being lived, a moment of instability is encountered that forces the individual to step back and reexamine a facet of their life – or possibly every facet of their life. For some this moment is sparked by a death, for others it is a loss of their own well-being, but always it is traumatic.
Instability is a word that reverberates throughout Lizzie Harris’s Stop Wanting. In the collection, Harris recounts an unstable past of sexual abuse and an unstable present with a speaker still trying to cope. Instability also resonates in Brian Foley’s The Constitution, which recounts a different sort of trauma centered on a failed romance. Both traumas seep deep into the lives of the speakers, forcing them to reevaluate both their views on romantic relationships and their relationships with the self. But the path for Harris’s speaker is far different from the path for Foley’s speaker. While Harris’s speaker actively struggles to overcome instability, Foley’s chooses to dwell on and embrace the instability caused by the loss of his love.
From the very beginning, Foley sets the tone for the rest of his book. The second poem, “The Constitution,” creates a foundation and theme for the poems that follow. He tells us, “Mostly we / soak. Shaped / by unattempt” and leaves the word “unattempt” echoing throughout the rest of the collection. The word itself is curious in that it is the action of inaction, a contradiction that implies nothing. So many of the lines Foley provides us reverse the meaning of previous lines to the point of bringing Foley’s speaker right back to where he started – miles from stability. In the lines “I don’t know / who I’m not,” the speaker exhibits a relationship of misunderstanding with his self. If he knew who he was, then he would also know who he isn’t. His syntax even expresses uncertainty about being confused. Foley’s speaker is effectively too lost to fully comprehend his own confusion and is left asserting nothing. Other lines present a similar theme: “What you can / do without / can’t grow. // …But live / like live.” He rejects a facet of his life as unnecessary, something he can “do without” because he believes it will never grow into anything of value, but then goes on to assert that it will in fact “live” like the very action of living. Through contradiction, Foley calls attention to nature’s contradiction: things grow, but only to die. In this world, the speaker’s only logical course of action becomes inaction.
All of this inaction and contradiction arises as the aftermath of a love gone wrong, heartbreak so deep that he likens it to one of our nation’s greatest tragedies, 9 /11. It may seem strange to connect “pictures [of] people / jumping / from tall buildings” to a failed romance, but for the speaker, it is the perfect connection. In the moment of a terror attack nothing else can matter, and this too becomes the case for Foley’s speaker. The failed romance is the single largest trauma he has experienced.
It is not surprising then that he isn’t ready to move on from the ending of his relationship. He refuses to see it as completely dead: “I stay alive inside.” Rather than letting the realization occur, the speaker allows himself to endure a drawn out depression. The lines “Our first time / at dusk. Somehow. / We never scream” provide an image of a serious fight between the speaker and his former love. The inclusion of the fact that they never scream hints at the lack of a critical ending point. Without a definitive end, his mind is allowed to return to the thought of his past love “in the former place / [where] the sun stands.” It’s illogical to think these thoughts will bring him any peace of mind, which he even acknowledges: “dumb impersonates calm.” Even so, the desire to dwell persists. The speaker at one point compares his breakup to “an accident / a car come off / the road” and expresses a morbid enjoyment of the aftermath: “I wouldn’t have missed it / for the world / I never had / more fun than in / that hospital.” Foley’s self is not ready to find a new love and alternatively projects feelings of comfort onto the thoughts of a broken relationship, providing incentive for his inaction and instability.
It is important to note that although the speaker embraces instability, he also criticizes his action. With “I remain unconvinced // these woods / are reversible,” he not only states that he doesn’t believe his relationships can heal, but also implies, through the stanza break, that the woods are in fact reversible – even if he doesn’t choose to accept it. Still, he ignores the notion of creating a stable relationship with the self or new lovers and instead chooses to wander in ruined woods. Everyone, including Foley, can agree that this is self-destructive: “these are parasites / hidden in // every ear / every chicken heart.” He sees his “chicken heart” and recognizes a parasite on the self, but allows instability to feed.
Harris’s instability manifests itself in a form that appears very similar to Foley’s, but is fundamentally different. The second section of “Mythology” in Harris’s collection is one that provides a preview of a similarly disrupted organization throughout the rest of the collection:
I was shipwrecked yes lost
in water held down
by my collarbone I was ink
Gaps between her words add a feeling of separation and loss that heighten the intensity of the imagery of instability in poems like these. It is important to note, however, that although poems with this type of destabilized format are frequent, they are not the norm. The majority of Harris’s poems in the collection are structured like the fourth section of mythology:
At eight I lost my body,
spent a decade
building a soft model
with bones and straw wrappers
Despite the straightforward look of the poem, the content of the poem cannot be called stable as it deals with the very root of the speaker’s instability. The significance of the choice of form lies in the speaker’s relationship with instability. Where Foley wades in and embraces instability, Harris tries to overcome it, partially through form, which holds onto some sense of stability.
Harris does not want to be defined by childhood trauma. In an effort to face her past, she recounts instances of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her father: “He took my body for a carpet / He took my body from men / I would one day want to love me.” She acknowledges her mindset that she is no longer free to give the gift of her body. Similarly, she cannot trust others with her wellbeing because her father, the figure that should have acted as the protector, “cracks / her skull against her sister’s, / [with] his thick grasp on the shortest / hairs.” For Harris’s speaker, the alternative to acknowledging the problems of her past is living with their aftereffects indefinitely.
It is difficult for the speaker to maintain a normal romantic relationship while she cannot stop associating new love with past abuse. Harris places the lines, “I am afraid for my father to know my address” and “I’m afraid / there’s a man somewhere who could love me / and I won’t have the stomach for it” in the same stanza to express her subconscious association of two the male figures. It’s painful for her to handle a romance, yet she tries. It’s her way of fighting against the tendency towards prolonged instability. But inevitably, she fails as instability takes over her relationship and writing:
for a moment I was a train-car the landscape
paned me with you moving tall
as trees please I miss your jaw
The fact that the speaker labels herself the “train-car” acknowledges that she is the one moving away from her lover, even if it appears that it’s him, the “trees” and “landscape,” leaving her. With this in mind, she attempts to salvage the relationship: “man that I love for a moment love me.” She even goes so far as to recount a positive memory of her father in “Tell Me One Good Thing.” Just the acknowledgement that there was something uncorrupted in her past could help the speaker to take steps forward.
In moving forward, Harris’s speaker cannot rely solely on stabilizing interpersonal relationships; she must come to terms with and reevaluate herself. Initially she projects herself onto the character of “Birdie,” who “fidgets with a flight pattern” and “chugs wine by a hydrant.” It is difficult to admit emotional instability and drug dependency. It is far easier to attach these qualities to some creature and later hide behind this animal’s innocence. However, the speaker is able to move beyond projection using “I” instead of “Birdie.” Through her confessions, “I vomited on my body at night.// … I am / … the queen of stalls” and “Pill in my hand fell / …I must look for it,” she identifies a very real problem and accepts the self-destructive behavior of “Birdie” as her own. With this acceptance, Harris’s speaker paves the way to redefine the self.
Harris’s speaker steps forward and Foley’s steps sideways, one favoring resistance and one favoring complacency. Harris ends on an arguably optimistic note: “but I could live one day, if or when / I’m ready to.” Foley ends on a defeatist note: “if we are home / it is by accident.” The way they choose to live their lives doesn’t change the fact that they’re living them. Embracing instability, or attempting to overcome it, each speaker manages to survive “pictures [of] people / jumping / from tall buildings.” It is unclear how much either speaker will move past mere survival. Harris’s speaker is at least trying to redefine the self, but Foley’s sees no use. What will we see? When trauma stumbles into us, it will be the moment after that truly matters - the moment to reevaluate our world and our direction.
Alex Rodriguez is a first-year student at Boston University, having moved from Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of multiple poems and engagements with poetry collections. His work has not appeared in any known publications.