Book Review

Part individual plea, part millennial manifesto, Andrew Hemmert’s Blessing the Exoskeleton combines displacement, homesickness, and illumination in poems that shed their original skins and transform into new, brighter creatures with every page turn. However, Blessing the Exoskeleton is also a conversation. Postindustrial America converses with the ethics and ideologies shaping America’s mythos. It possesses a questioning, resilient voice willing to dissect, examine, and challenge those ethics and ideologies interjects itself into those conversations.

“Of Corridors” opens the collection. Disfiguring mirrors and “brutally human angles” line the corridor, and a futile voice cries into space and time. The rural imagery sets the collection’s tone. The nameless “I,” “running / behind again, as if / down a gravel road” could be anyone. The imagery is literal as much as it is metaphoric, and the image of the speaker running “behind a pickup truck / with the hatch open / as someone, anyone / holds out a hand from the bed” creates fleetingness, dissonance, and separation.

For as philosophically serious as it is, Blessing the Exoskeleton also harbors humor. “The Warmth of Toilet Seats in Public Restrooms” is a prime example. Existential and observant, the speaker remarks “In theory our lives belong / only to us, if just barely.” Life, its meaning, and the speaker’s purpose fall into question. Enjambed lines and inverted interrogative statements help form a sense of emotional wrestling: “The last time you spoke to whom you once considered / your closest friend, when was it?” As for the toilet seat, it becomes symbolic, a representation of the place in which, at desperate moments, humans seek consolation. The speaker personifies the toilet seat: “You are / never really alone says the toilet seat, thigh heat lingering.” Existential awareness floods the final lines as the speaker recognizes that with “extinction hovering directly overhead,” accepting what one has in the immediate moment is a necessity which cannot be reconsidered.

The poem “Film Criticism in the Age of the AR-15” challenges America’s ethos. The speaker’s exhaustion, presumably with America’s gun violence, permeates the poem. The speaker’s opening statements “I am tired of sequels, / of remakes” alludes to public and individual enervation with the innumerable mass shootings occurring in America each year. Nonetheless, centering the poem is the speaker’s awareness that nowhere is safe. The speaker takes into consideration “exit signs—locked red rooms.” They assert how one cannot assume others in public possess the same intent of viewing a film without harming others. Creating the poem’s momentum is its structure consisting of enjambed couplets, and as the poem concludes, the repetition of the word “flash” three times in a two-line span creates a frantic moment, a recognition that the violence continues.

“November Theory” reads like the quintessential millennial manifesto. Blunt and direct, it exudes the burnout plaguing millennials as they navigate finding satisfying careers, establishing fulfilling lives, and assuming familial responsibility. The speaker asserts, “I just want a little quiet / and a lot of money, hallelujah.” The speaker’s metaphor “Now I am a cartographer,” and the action of “scraping the frost from my windshield” represent the generational waywardness and loss felt by millennials since 2009. Again, the speaker utilizes repetition, specifically with the phrase “Someone is always:” “Someone is always burning leaves. / Someone is always tearing off their shirt sleeves.” This repetition establishes a sense of being stuck, of being unable to escape current circumstances—feelings many millennials harbor as they struggle to accumulate wealth, manage college debt, and enter their peak earning years amidst another looming financial crisis.

“The Owl Catcher’s Son” is another contribution to the millennial manifesto. The speaker is “Without work” and living “inside the classifieds.” It’s an experience shared by many millennials as they find themselves in low-benefit, dead-end jobs with little upward mobility. Hopelessness fills the speaker’s thoughts as they think what their life could have been. Again, structure fuels the poem’s emotion. The poem has no stanza breaks and relies on shortened line lengths which facilitate the stress which the speaker has stockpiled “like an apocalypse prepper.”

These shortened line lengths reinforce vulnerable, confessional lines like “I don’t know what my life would be / without anxiety.” The speaker’s shortened, blunt statements create a distinctive, disgruntled tone:

if I was a postal worker
or a custodian
or a bird catcher—
an actual job I came across,
the gist of which
was chasing pigeons
out of big box stores.

The speaker observes that “most jobs require” one to act “like you meant to do / whatever ultimately ended up / solving the problem”—an implicit critique of the contemporary career world in the United States.

Geographic and environmental awareness play an essential role in Blessing the Exoskeleton, and “Upper Peninsula” captures the undeniable effect place plays in shaping a person’s own ethos and identity. The speaker relies on small details others might overlook: “you must account for the drive-through / liquor store housed in the old carwash.” Initially, the speaker focuses on human-made elements, including “wholesale Christmas tree lots” and a “hand-painted and fading” sign bearing the words “Jesus come into my heart.” As the poem concludes, the speaker instead focuses on natural elements:

But don’t forget the wind entering
the trees like applause. Don’t forget
the patched-up cracks in the road zagging
like pulses on screens, the purple blooms
tunneling through the asphalt to offer up
their color. How full the midnight trucks sound.

Enjambment emphasizes action words like “entering” and “zagging,” creating realness, authenticity in motion.

Like Su Cho’s The Symmetry of Fish, Blessing the Exoskeleton is an introspective look at the everyday, the small moments in between the larger and life-changing ones, which are often taken for granted or labeled mundane. Ultimately, it is a discussion about external and internal places, literal and metaphorical, which impact life in ways individuals cannot process until they encounter a page, a poem, a collection like Blessing the Exoskeleton.

About the Reviewer

Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in the Atlanta Review, the Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Nicole teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College. She is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and The Southern Review of Books.