Book Review

Casey Thayer’s latest collection, Rational Anthem, is a meditation on American patriotism and the particular brand of masculinity that comes with it. Warm-blooded, charged with emotional intensity as well as wry humor, Rational Anthem takes on the very topics that increasingly divide our political discourse. In this sense, the poems are not always easy to encounter; they offer no escape from the world around us, no visions of a more just future. Rather, Thayer asks his readers to confront the violence of our time, to hold space for anger, wonder, uncertainty, grief. As Patricia Smith writes in her preface, Rational Anthem is “decidedly cocked and loaded.”

That aphorism—“cocked and loaded”—encapsulates not only the “virile” nature of these poems but also one of their primary concerns: from first page to last, guns are explicit, operating as a metaphorical object within the context of male violence and vulnerability as well as a very real presence in everyday life. A series of prose poems scattered throughout the collection interrogate guns and the language we assign to them. Akin to dictionary entries, these pieces take as their impetus a single word (“bullet,” “silencer,” “sight”) and unravel its meaning to expose deeper political or social implications. Take the opening poem as example:

trigger · 1. a liberator, pulls / the pin on what you’ve hidden—
caution: / this content can upset, what’s inside you, / how it
explodes in moments / of weakness, being / every day amazed by /
the willingness of strangers / to meet with grace this bare expression
of weakness, / the squat nub, half-moon apostrophe, / what’s
second-thought / but not— the trigger’s insistent, / to talk about it,
the need / to talk about it, / what to label, what to leave unlabeled,
/ to erase the mind & survive that erasure . . .

Here, the word “trigger” operates literally as the lever of a gun’s mechanism and figuratively as an event that instigates a trauma response. Masterfully, Thayer renders each definition inseparable from the other, weaving together a subtle yet powerful commentary on the shadow wounds left on survivors of violence. In doing so, he resists the black-and-white rhetoric endemic to hotly contested issues such as “content warnings” and “gun legislation.” This poem seeks to ask questions, not answer them—an ethos that can be observed in form as well as content.

Though “trigger · 1” is not enjambed in the traditional sense, the forward slashes throughout create fragmentation within the line. This punctuation introduces nuance into the text, generating double meanings that blur the boundary between physical and psychological harm. At the same time, the forward slash further severs the single run-on sentence from which the poem is forged—a visual enactment of injury. It’s also difficult to ignore how this piece functions within the collection as a whole. Placed at the very beginning of Rational Anthem, “trigger · 1” is its own kind of “trigger warning,” alerting readers to the sensitive nature of this collection’s material while also offering a critique of those who would dismiss the trauma of others as thin-skinned sensationalism.

While pieces like “trigger · 1” touch a broader social consciousness, many of the poems from Rational Anthem approach the problem of violence from a more intimate angle:

You can love a man and find some shared action
in which he tolerates that love.

I slid my hands up the hollow muffler
of the buck’s chest cavity

and slit the esophagus, cut the skirt
of the diaphragm from sternum to crotch.

Then I pulled the guts out. Sometimes
I believe in small acts of kindness.

In these lines from “An Anatomical Study Concerning the North American Whitetail,” the gun is implicit. A father’s rifle is just beyond the periphery of this poem, watching over the speaker as he dismantles their quarry. Yes, there is violence here but not for violence’s sake. Rather paradoxically, the violence in this poem is an attempt to penetrate the stiffness inherent to hypermasculine relationships, even very close ones. The dismemberment and cleaning of the deer, which requires the speaker handle its innermost parts, presents a foil to the connection between father and son in which any touch demands a practical excuse: “If you hold a heart, you can touch him. / He’ll forget he’s touching what he can’t touch.” Though the wound this poem illustrates is closer to a bruise than a bullet hole, it succeeds in exposing a trauma so commonplace it is often overlooked: the emotional tenderness that men deny themselves.

However, Thayer doesn’t neglect to address those more palpable traumas that come as a result of gun violence. The final poem of Rational Anthem takes the form of an abecedarian to explore the conflicted messaging with which law enforcement treats school shootings. Taking inspiration from a mandated active-shooter training that he attended, Thayer’s “How-To” is as scathing as it is heartbreaking:

Don’t run in a straight line; trace Zs in the path of your running.

Don’t run. The police might mistake you for the threat.

Don’t just sit there and do nothing. Be the change you want to see in the world, and that change is stopping someone from shooting you and your classmates, your coworkers, your fellow concertgoers with a gun.

Contradiction builds upon contradiction, condemning the relentless spew of “helpful tips” or “thoughts and prayers” from NRA-backed politicians as well as the failure of governing bodies to take responsibility at the institutional level.

A poem like “How-To” is not easy reading. A poem like “How-To” may make you feel exhausted and bitter and, to use the word, “triggered.” And yet there is something incredibly powerful, even hopeful, about reading a poem that refuses to look away from such horrific events. Poems cannot fix the world by themselves, but they can transform our perception of it. Rational Anthem calls on us to sustain our outrage. For as much as we might like to forget these senseless tragedies, change is only possible if we refuse to deaden or succumb to our despair. This is the true genius of Thayer’s collection— its capacity to hold devastation against insight, beauty against brutality, to encourage its readers to fight but not without reminding them of what they’re fighting for.

About the Reviewer

Laura Morrison Roth is a poet from Albuquerque, New Mexico. As of now, she is an MFA candidate in poetry at CSU, an editorial assistant for Colorado Review, and a composition instructor. Most recently, her work has appeared in Passengers Journal. She was a workshop participant at Tin House in 2021 and at Aspen Words in 2022, where she had the honor of writing with Jake Skeets and Terrance Hayes respectively.