Book Review

The book ajar, we witness ourselves becoming somewhat else. Ajar To The Night, we slip into the ink—the skin of voice. The voice that whispers, sings, instructs, returns, in Autumn Richardson’s new book of poems is one that witnesses its own transformations in the earth. The fluid subject addresses those living forces that alter us without cease. Forces recalled as similes: “you came to me as a song”; “you came to me as a torch”; “you come to me now / as a wind.” This mysterious you is medicinal, taken with the seasons: “you come to me / as depurative”; “you come to me / as styptic”; “we are each of us wounded / and seeking demulcents.” How wounded? What’s harmed us? Those forces are largely unnamed, just as the I of these delicate, quiet, intensely present poems is released of any hook-like identity. We know her without knowing her name. We recognize her by her desirous address, by her sinuous movements as she shape-shifts in the earth. Her singular identity is further obscured by her conjuration of another. The speaker is so attentive, so open to the magnetism, the dynamism of the one whose very presence begs her to alter, that she seems herself the one at the receiving end of the altar with the power to alter.

The book is parsed into three parts, three long poems that gather their brevity in swift, meditative events across the pages. The first, “You Came To Me,” is the longest, being all in preparation for the shedding of skins. Here initiation and conjuration are the same. At the start, we slip in and out of tenses, unsure of where we are, untethered. The beginning is the remembering of a former visitation:

it returns to me now
as a memory

a cold draught lifting
from split earth

Presently, a few pages on, the subject drinks something like this cold draught, telling us how she lives, what prophetic sustenance she takes into her body:

I drink from arteries
of occult springs –

waters sheathed
in loam-darkness

I drink cold infusions
of vatic minerals and roots

She recalls the various shapes of the visitant until recollection takes the shape of return: “you arrive as a sun / to repair the torn threads / of my body.” Beside this utterance, another voice, a layered one, a tone of instruction, marked by a sloping font. It seems an overarching, teaching sort of consciousness. Yet uncannily it blends with the I. The guide and the guided are reflections. “You are eyes in the maelstrom. / A robe carried over bone. / Movement through worlds.” A voice earlier heralded, echoed, indwelling in the lines: “you are the dweller inside / the atria of hills”? Who’s I, who’s you, who’s initiate or sage when,

all is restless
all is current

there is nothing still
upon this earth

The altered voice offers truths like: “we are meant to be fluid”; advice like: “Be each moment. / Breathe it, perceive it. / Then drop it like a stone”; prophecies like: “it will move you, with the instinct / of migration, in the directions / of your need”; warnings like: “Transformation is a wounding.” And when we cross an immense threshold into the second poem, this companion-like voice is notably gone.

“In All Her Names And Forms” we wake to a radical shift in being. The speaker, the one we’ve come to know through desirous address, openness to metamorphosis, is now totally transformed. Here is how she tells us: “When the dark sea presses / against my temples // I am returned.” Note that “bell-note” of the word “return.” It is how we entered the consciousness of “You Came To Me”: “it returns to me now / as a memory.” The perspective is profoundly reversed. As the poem builds, as body part by body part the prevailing consciousness delights in her new, unnamed form, as her womb becomes her “throat / splitting open into song,” a song that carries on the immortal embodied confidence of the feminine divine (and it is worth pointing out that lines in this second poem are headed by capital letters, used in the first poem only when noting the knowing italicized voice), I conjures you once more: “You who sowed me, thinking me lost; / dissolved to salts, to waves // Now tremble at my flowering.” And on the following page, a similar form:

You who slew me, who
disarticulated my forms

As waves recede
you will come hungering
to the hinted arc of my bones

How very odd. We’d become so accustomed to the I of the earlier poem, her identity encased in her remembrance of, and desire for, the divinity of you; and now beyond the threshold it is you who trembles, you who hungers for the disarticulated body of another. Hear how this uncanny reversal ends: “I breathe and my breath rings through you – / a bell-note altering your dress of flesh // And you remember.” Now it is you who are dressed in flesh. Now it is you who remembers the visitation of You.

In the final part, in the title poem “Ajar To The Night,” the sloping font returns to bookend the closing consciousness of the book. The sloping bell-note reveals itself to be a gong’s vibration!

memory is fleeting
but I remember

 I will lead you to the places
you must be

I will call you with a gong’s

Harking back to the opening gesture of the book, encased in memory, the I now guides the trembling openness of you. But rather than held at an impossible distance from each other, both I and you are remembered in the sloping hills or text of the overarching consciousness. And beyond those hills, in the closing utterances of the book, a communal voice is given to speak, a joint wisdom singularly unearthed:

without bones we are fluid
entering earth

without skin we are ajar
to the night

Richardson in these final gestures releases us from the trappings of our bodies’ boundaries, anchors us in our humanity, in our visceral becoming; the visionary poet opens each of us to the wisdom traditions always-already encoded in our forms: “we are each of us in keeping / with our knowing // there is barely a branch of us left”; “epiphany holds death within it // each thing you think you know / will be taken from you”; “go within and that is where we are / go within and there you’ll be.” Awake—we, you, I—to the gong’s vibration!

Richardson’s vision is vital for our wounded era. Turn era to ear to hear “the notes within my blood / of a once-known living poem.” Recover your dwelling in the earth; learn “the eternal patience / of stone.” Take antique medicines, return to you: be sinuous as the cormorant, blend like the broken yolk, mind you always slip your casing. With her book ajar, ourselves open to the ink of night, read the poet who initiates us into the rites of oneness, the one who relates the rituals belonging to the art of metamorphosis, returning us to our selves, the living earth. Hers is a deeply embodied environmental ethic: “I am the grasses, the stalks, the stones.” I am the moon adopting the colors of her local fires. I am the wind that clears the air of smoke some days, the same that fans the fires. I am the smoke in the throats of birds. The does that feed silhouetted in the dark. The grouse I heard him kill and ate. The currants in their autumn dress. The text. The lungs, the bones, the discretionary ligatures.*


*these last two words hint at a lovely discretionary detail in the book.

About the Reviewer

Tirzah Goldenberg is the author of Aleph (Verge Books 2017), the chapbook for (Oxeye Press 2020), and the forthcoming full-length collection YHWH [the title written in Paleo-Hebrew characters] (Verge Books 2020). She studied literature and creative writing at the University of Exeter in England and Colorado State University. Tirzah lives off-grid with her husband Rico Moore and their cat Fennel in the mountains of northern Colorado. They are soon relocating to the Olympic Peninsula. Her website is