Book Review

Between my second and third readings of Hannah Brooks-Motl’s Earth, I happened to pick from my shelf Ronald Johnson’s The Book of the Green Man. Having never read it in full, I proceeded to read the whole book in one sitting, stopping only briefly to eat a handful of pretzel sticks dipped in peanut butter—the second of two small meals I ate that day, the fifth day of my first illness of the year 2020. I had been trying to write a review of Earth for nearly two months after receiving it in the mail from my former advisor, Dan Beachy-Quick, who remains ever my teacher, and who also edits this series of book reviews. He had asked if I might like to review Earth because, I think, he sensed in our e-mail exchange that I was feeling disconnected from poetry or at least from scholarship, at least from that world in which we first encountered each other—the world of deep and serious examination of poetry, of the academic approach to a thing that I otherwise understand to be holy—the world of the MFA. He also, I imagine, sensed some thematic kinship between the work of mine that he knows and that of Earth. Grief is there:

and then I learned.                               there were words
he was gone

as are impulses toward observation (There were three potheads / out in the dark; a curtain tacked up as a door) and dailiness:

just back from dance

                                                where we lay on the floor
let yourself sink
as the one woman entered                      I had zero

the inclusion of the strange that is first perceived to be ordinary (They hunt us through the bitching forest / Today is nothing in the work of art), the desire toward the impossible inclusion of everything:

                        not mine                             but all
but the world

and perhaps most of all, a quiet desperation to locate within (“It’s fall in the back of an Escalade / It was the middle of my thought”), and make meaning of, this present (“grabbing stuff in honor of the past // hoping it will all flash recognizably again—it’s a / problem”) in which we [both me and Hannah, and Dan, and presumably you, but particularly, I suppose I mean to say, me and Hannah, who have never met or corresponded, who are not connected in any way via the internet, but who appear in my internet searches and from my reading of her work to be women poets, each from someplace in the middle of the United States, not far from a similar age (“millennials                         compassionate / and identical”), writing in a moment that does not easily open itself to that work which I consider to be the work of poetry, particularly that work of a poetry that might be posited as “difficult”] exist.

I had been stuck by my attempts to write about Earth for many reasons. One of them simply being the situation of the act of “reviewing.” A poetry review, it would seem to me, is more a competition of intelligence than any real review, at least as a “review” is understood in other disciplines (though understandings in other disciplines are arguably even more dangerous). It goes like this: I read the book and I have an impression of that book, and then, instead of simply letting that impression wash over me, do its work on my psyche, and move through me into my life and my own work, I am meant to use the words and skills I learned in graduate school to tidily form a profound conclusion about the book, ideally while exhibiting my utmost intellectual prowess (“And within the joy of amateurs. / Is daring healthy or boredom? / And giving everyone their space as an ideology. / Taking apart the song / for the sadness of pleasure”). While this is a much more beautiful and reasonable use of time than most other approaches to criticism, it is an act I’d lost my taste for upon exiting the tower of learning (“inner static or—a real suspicion / re the whole idea”). This because it’s an act that puts my mind’s digestion of Hannah’s artwork somewhere outside of Hannah’s book, and possibly ahead of someone else’s mind’s digestion of it (“That tribute but other debts too. / Taking apart the song.”), which is, for me, a problem whether or not this digestion is encountered chronologically ahead of that mind’s reading of Earth.

All of this even as Earth itself is introduced to the reader through the lens of Wong May in a letter to Hannah. The letter seems to begin in a dream (“I was sitting beside you on a muddy riverbank, & woke with the scent of water & mud, we have been to parties, visited houses etc., there was a horse, there was fleetingly your brother”) and as it continues, it reveals May’s reading of the book (“So the peach is rotting & beautiful—full of death but not dead, at least as seen. I love the physicality, all the particulars that make your generalisations JUMP and hold true.”) a gesture not so far away from the engagement of a review. This choice to include May’s words at the book’s outset, though, is still an act of intention made by its author and the letter does, in all senses, open the book for the reader. At its conclusion, May asks: “Is poetry the screen before the altar?” This question stuck in my mind throughout my readings and I came to understand it as a central concern of the book. I found myself wondering what May is really asking. If, to be the screen before the altar is a desirable thing to be because of its proximity to the holy, or if, to be that screen is in some way to obscure what is beyond it, to keep a layer between it and the world. Perhaps this is a sort of protection. Or perhaps it is a comment on poetry’s function as artifice. Perhaps a similar question could be asked of the action of reviewing. And so, for two months, I carried Earth around with me in my bag resisting this impulse.

It might be clear by now that Earth’s title was also a cause of my stuckness. Mostly, it was the phrase as it appeared on my to do list: “review Earth.” How could I purport to review a book with such a title while I (an American in this moment of late-capitalism-internet-in-pocket-broken-democracy-impending-pandemic-climate-crisis-not-distant-but-now-etc-etc) can no more than hint at the name of this planet without being overtaken by a profound sense of shame and immobility (“Every chemical substance upborne into my lungs / Each particular copy of war // Woke up dreaming of language, In texts / Of theory / Read a website // Do locomotive appeals in personal national crises / —These keys— / Explain me, individually”). Also, the fact that between my first and second readings of Earth, I received Ariana Reines’ A Sand Book in the mail from a friend and read that, too. My first thought in encountering each of these texts, respectively: what gall, what heft. And why? Why, still, am I delighted and caught by surprise to hold this book by a woman called, so ambitiously, Earth? And why, in my other hand, am I shocked by the weight of this epic, of this tome of sand? Answers perhaps to be found in this morning’s results of Super Tuesday, where—my own desires and opinions aside—a woman was found, yet again, utterly forgettable (“Dragged my foot: // The chronicle / Tells many lies / About change”). I did not blame Hannah for giving her book this name—I admired her for it—but I could not in this moment imagine the responsibility of doing such a thing myself. Gall, and especially gall coming from a woman, more often than not leads me to permission, to feel permitted to do something I did not before feel allowed to do. Not just to trade in such titles, but to imagine doing the sort of work I discovered upon reading and deeper reading of the book: the work of a singular imagination communicating itself tenuously and surprisingly, successfully.

As much as I might resist it, a necessary step in the life of a poem is the reading of that poem by someone outside of the poet (“sure that the sentence / rots when no one is in it”). And if you are here in the first place, you probably already know that a good poem is one that is specific enough to incite the reader into interaction and open enough to allow that reader to project themselves onto it. And so, these poems have. I keep bringing up the academic approach to poetry and the life outside of this approach that is the making of the poem and the difficulty and disappointment present in that life [and also the glimmer, because it is, of course, such a beautiful life, too, and a privilege (“the freedom of art / not fragile but thin”)] is that I can’t help but read these in this book just as much as I read its subtle, yet pervasive movement through grief (“when you left me. Where did you go? / On the balcony with a jewel. / In the well-litness of the lonely”). And Earth doesn’t resist these readings—in its poem called “Poetry,” which begins, “Come out of your programs, we’re all poolside / Amongst the nature imagery;” in its awareness of its station. And it is from my own odd station that I encountered this book (“my eggs skin cells contributing to dust / the New American anything”) as something I did not know I needed. Something wispy and significant at the same time, reflecting back to me my complicated and varying sadnesses not preciously or mockingly but through a mirror “majestic & raw & just like biology.” I cannot explain how gossamer can also be indelible, but it is here. An admission that the holiness of the striving of poetry can turn unholy easily in the age of the internet is also here, and I needed that, too.

I desire many opposing gifts from poetry, and it is rare to find a bulk of them in one place. In this giving, Earth astonishes. In its contradictions and awareness of those contradictions, in its ability project back a vision of the world in which it occurs, while holding it just far enough away that it might be possible to love ourselves in it. It’s a book I need and yet it is not a book I know how to write, not only because it is not a book of my mind, but because Earth is a sort of mastery—a smattering of color so barely held together by moments I can only describe as concretely feeling (“an attempt / at the thinness of experience” […] “with a sense of vastness, yearning / for all times                 in all times—”).

The reason it matters that I found myself reading The Book of the Green Man is that Johnson’s project with the book was “to go in search of all things ‘most rich, most glittering, most strange’” and “as a brash American, to make new the traditional British seasonal long poem.” In his way, he was trying to put on the page the continual expression of the world and to do it anew. To do what had been done before him so many times and well enough, but to do it differently and now. In my illness and low-blood-sugar-induced euphoria, I recognized that Earth—in complete inhabitation of its name—does the same. Not in that it is a book of the seasons, but in that it is, richly, glitteringly, strangely, a book of this season, this Earth “at the junction of whatever / and the beautiful.” It might be true that poetry is the screen before the altar (not a bad thing to be, I suppose). In order to go on in this pursuit, though, I have to believe that poetry is the altar—a site where, in the middle of everything that does not make sense, the holy takes place. Earth, to me, is one such site.



About the Reviewer

CL Young is the author of the chapbook What Is Revealed When I Reveal It to You (Dancing Girl Press, 2018), and co-author with Emily Skillings of Rose of No Man's Land, a chaplet from Belladonna* Collaborative (2019). Her poems have appeared in Lana Turner, the PEN Poetry Series, Poetry Northwest, the Volta, and elsewhere. Her essays can be found at Entropy and the Scofield. She holds an MFA from Colorado State University and currently lives in Boise, Idaho.