Book Review

The 1977 educational film Powers of Ten begins with an aerial view of a couple picnicking in the park—a strange perspective, as if we were giants. Over the next five minutes, the video zooms out at the rate of one power of ten every ten seconds. We see the park framing the picnic blanket, the city surrounding the park, the city giving way to county, state, and country, eventually the North American continent. We see our solar system, then our galaxy, until we are 100 million light years away. The video rewinds at an increasing speed, then slows, and begins zooming in to the flakes of skin on the man’s hand, the structure of his cells, to the very quarks inside a proton.

This is what reading Laura Bylenok’s Living Room feels like—becoming acutely aware of our bodies as containers for the vast cellular system mirroring the universe: “I’ve been feeling mitochondrial. / After all, a cell is also a room // with organs, furniture, pictures on the wall.” We were once a single cell ourselves, and in the context of this universe, we are only dust. To Bylenok, deep time is present in the waiting room of a hospital, just as it exists in the incomprehensible lifespan of a fungal network. Human lives are both blinks of time and excruciatingly central convergences in the speaker’s understanding of the world.

Living Room is primarily concerned with the medicalized body and in turn, how the body and mind experience each other in the wake of medical trauma. The speaker watches her mother’s cancer progress while trying to become a mother herself. Hence the earliest poems in the collection are about the speaker’s miscarriage, such as “Forest Floor,”

I’ve wanted to become more forest-like.

That is, to stretch toward blankness,

a sheet pulled too tight at the corners

of the twin mattress.

Everything is thin, thinned out,

I’d say threadbare, and even the air

[. . .] all surface, unfilled with the impulse

to touch my own arms

to smooth the skin, as if I know

the feeling will pass, just a chill.

We experience the speaker’s disassociation through her longing to become part of the forest floor. Human time converges with forest time, stretching endlessly ahead, but on a human body this is “too tight . . . thinned out.” The grief is so strong it becomes a longing to depersonalize, to step out of this aching humanness. The beginning and end of the pregnancy is its own geologic era inside the speaker’s body, even as the speaker tells herself, “the feeling will pass.”

As much as Bylenok engages with deep time, her poetry is concerned with the immediacy of fleeting moments and how linear time can be merciless from a human perspective. This is evident in the second of the two poems both titled “Waiting Room.”

That’s how I know time is really human, unpredictable how long

before it snaps and I fall asleep by not thinking

about all the things a doctor can say: late stage, scarring, low

hemoglobin count. Hep C, sepsis, half-life

of a bottle of Klonopin. Or say: it’s like a car accident, preventable,

but irreversible.

“Waiting Room” reminds me of the debates between Albert Einstein and philosopher Henri Bergson about the nature of Time itself. “I know time is really human” describes Bergson’s most pressing argument—that Einstein’s measurable clock time wouldn’t even exist without the bedrock of human Time to precipitate the use of clocks and other devices. Measurable time arises from the intrinsic value we place on Time itself, for “[clock time] is born of the mathematical point, that is to say, of space. And yet, without real time, the point would be only a point, not an instant.” To Bergson, Time beyond clocks is the relationship between a duration and an observer’s memory, “a memory that prolongs the before into the after.” This is how Bylenok experiences time in such poems—fundamentally tied to her relationships with her dying mother. The mother’s life can be measured in her hemoglobin count, in a number of pills, in the time remaining, but the reason we measure it is because of the value we place on the memory of one another.

Living Room chronicles the emotions and rituals of life ending and beginning again. The grief of miscarriage is omnipresent as is the hope for a pregnancy to be viable. Later in the collection, Bylenok meditates on how we create identities for hoped-for children, at what point do people begin to acknowledge that life not just as something tangible, but as someone real. The poem “B73” is named after a variety of maize chosen by the scientific community to have its genome sequenced, similarly to how the speaker learns the sex of her baby after a prenatal blood test. The nurse says, “‘Do you want to know if it’s a boy or a girl?’ with such delight—a secret—in the voice. As if without the sex, the person isn’t there: an it, object, not human, not yet.” The so-called “gender reveal” becomes so much more in this poem—it is a point of questioning, of interpellation. Bylenok recognizes it as an irreversible moment of becoming. She writes: “A name, you see, is a kind of power. A way of holding. . . . Power, unlike a reflex, must not be named. It is the act of naming that makes a subject. If I am not named, says the maize flower, I cannot be unnamed.” This is the seat of fear inside the speaker. If the baby hadn’t named, if he had remained an “it,” if she had not tucked blue flowers into the pages of a baby name book: he would not go through the process of “unnaming” in the event of a miscarriage.

Bylenok’s perspective in Living Room is transformative—when I realized the levels of interiority in her work, the poems continued expanding for me each time I read it. A multigenerational account of life and death, encapsulated by the time it takes for a blood cell to dry up in the open air. Bylenok states the obvious in a way that feels like a discovery: we are all made of rooms, we are living rooms, “inside another inside // is outside again, where / I’m growing in a skin of cells // intrinsic as sun / sudden on the lichen.”

About the Reviewer

C. E. Janecek is a Czech American writer and freelance editor with an MFA in poetry from Colorado State University. Janecek's writing has appeared in Poetry, Sugar House Review, Gulf Coast, Booth, and elsewhere. Online at and on Instagram @c.e.writespoems.