Book Review

A four-in-hand is a vehicle drawn by four horses and driven by one person. The term, however, also refers to one of the simplest methods for tying a necktie. This narrow and slightly asymmetrical knot can be completed in four quick steps to transform a casual outfit into one suitable for formalities. In either case, the four-in-hand is a performance of carefully executed control.

The title of Alicia Mountain’s sophomore collection of poetry is certainly a tongue-in-cheek nod to the book’s structure, which consists of four heroic crowns that allow readers to literally hold four in hand as they move through the work. Mountain, a master of formal poetics in her own right, honors the formal requirements of classic sonnet crowns while innovating on top of them, in part by refusing to address a single subject or theme. The collection investigates class warfare, political stalemates, gun violence, environmental disaster, and mental health crises—as well as regionalism, queer joy, and reverence for the quiet wonders that govern our daily lives.

Like much of Mountain’s preceding work, Four in Hand is rapturous and ambitious, capturing gentle intimacy and unbridled imagination that persists in a world “held tight like too much hope.” These poems plumb the depths of the personal interior, and with them, they carry that kind of rare, uncontaminated honesty that breaks down barriers with ease. Mountain establishes herself as a gifted storyteller possessing the ability to transport readers into both physical and emotional scenery, with “weeks of alone time in breathy Virginia,” “seismic / score / marks / for / splitting,” and “volcano / bleeding a molten stone love to the surface.” The first section in the collection, “Train Town Howl,” paints the landscape of small-town life and kick-starts an elaborate self-study of moral identity, conflicting emotions, and the extent to which it’s truly possible to know others—or to know yourself. Reflecting on the vertiginous aftermath of a prior romantic relationship, Mountain writes, “Somewhere inside me there is a swarm / that wants out.”

What is it that keeps us composed even when something unsettling swarms inside? That compels us to stay quiet when we want to howl in pain? And how do we reckon with personal responsibility when our intentions are murky, our emotions clashing, our signals mixed? Mountain admits, “I know part / of me is bad,” but then clarifies, “I pretend that I am good.” That may be the end goal we’re coaxed to strive for—outward acceptance that suggests apathy and blunts suffering—but Mountain asks us, plainly, if that is the truth. Do we not deserve to feel loudly, forcefully, even unfairly in our pain? Coming to the end of the section, she states, “I am not trying to be good,” acknowledging at the same time that, “I have broken many things / in my thirst.” Yet, to despair publicly and to see our sadness and exertion amplified is no failure in Mountain’s eyes. There still exists the capacity for grace and remembrance, even in our moments of howling, which can best be exemplified by the section’s closing lines:

Whomever you love, they belong beside you,
lying in your honest kind of shade.
Somewhere inside me, there is a swarm
keeping quiet when I want to howl.
What you buried can’t be driven out of me.

Mountain studies language carefully but playfully, motivated to imagine beyond rigid poetic structures. Along with its rich imagery and cleverly-implemented devices, Four in Hand keeps readers engaged by continuously investigating and bending the sonnet crown structure. In the traditional sonnet crown, the first line of each sonnet in the sequence is the same as the last line of the sonnet that comes before it. Additionally, the final line of the last sonnet is the same as the opening line of the first sonnet—thus completing the “crown” circle. Though sonnet crowns typically focus on one subject, Mountain covers a wide range of topics, weaving them in and out of the crown structure to create a blend of experience and emotion. The final sonnet in the crown is constructed entirely from the first lines of all the sonnets before it, forming an original poem from recycled material. Mountain honors this pattern, which continues across all of the sections in the collection and emphasizes the cyclical nature of sonnet crowns, as well as the innovative repetition that breaks that cycle by producing something new.

These sonnet crowns remind readers that cycles often determine how the world moves too. “Initial Descent” opens with an address simply to “Forefather,” which serves as a double entendre throughout the remainder of the section. Mountain reflects on “the paradise of a pulsing nightclub turned violet,”  the “bake sale opioids,” the “sinister lever-pull that will not right us”—all of which are the result of cycles that can be traced back to forefathers, cycles that have repeated through our lineage, that still affect our very own families—our very own fathers. When so much of society reproduces dangerous patterns and cycles of erasure, we naturally find ourselves wondering if change is possible. Can we convince the world to stop “denying what was already buried and plain?” We might then also wonder how we measure the role our own lives play in upholding these cycles—when “likeness can be its own startling tragedy.” For Mountain, it begins with direct inquisition of the self. As a lesbian who has lived in places where “an act of the body has become so consequential,” she admits that she often forgets she is “a benefactor / of war by birthright.” And in knowing that role, the last poem in the sonnet crown—the one born of repetition—suggests that cycles can be broken when we are armed with knowledge. We do not always have to “circle our holding pattern, waiting to be received.”

The final section, “MyMerrill,” is sourced entirely from found text from financial newsletter emails by Merrill Lynch financial advisor services. (Mountain mentions in her Notes section that Charles E. Merrill, who co-founded the advisory firm, was the father of poet James Merrill.) The section reads as an encouraging lecture to employees that is intended to “bull them towards the light”—but that ultimately turns on itself, gaining agency through self-awareness. These sonnets outline the control and “bullish expectations” exerted by organizations under capitalism: “We keep you company / along a path that’s been made clear for you.” They also acknowledge that corporations are only incentivized to care about employee well-being when their fiduciary service is threatened. To that end, the cracks in our ways of work and life become visible. The facade comes crashing down:

 Resilience won’t protect
you from the threat . . . it will lift
you up from stumble, set you on the track
to run, to trip again, the hurdles high.

As the cycles of late-stage capitalism repeatedly set us up to fail, it is the choice to trust the self, to choose dialogue, and to nurture collective well-being that becomes a radical act of joy. Those choices might just “take you by your sharp point, point you home.”

Can we release what has been buried within us? Alicia Mountain probes this question with humanity and tender curiosity as she leads readers toward an awareness of a different world—one that is lighter, kinder. Even while studying our collective participation in tragedy, Four in Hand makes space for the individual to expand, contract, and inquire within. It is a discernable beacon of hope, but perhaps Mountain says it best herself: “This book is a monument to touch . . . however quick, however long it lasts.”

About the Reviewer

Tryn Brown is a writer based in San Francisco, CA. Her work has been featured in The Adroit Journal, Rain Taxi Review, Split Lip Magazine, and others. You can find her on Twitter @themeasures.