Book Review

According to the Victoria State Government (as in Victoria, Australia), “An object floats when the weight force on the object is balanced by the upward push of the water on the object.” Which is to say: we’re able to float in water because whatever force that is weighing us down is not stronger than the one lifting us up.

That hopeful phenomenon has been carefully captured and distilled in Brian Tierney’s first collection of poetry, Rise and Float, which was selected by Randall Mann as the winner of the Jake Adam York prize. The book’s five sections traverse suicide, nostalgia, grief, gratitude, and the turbulent personal interiorall while maintaining a reverence for the customary details of existence. The first poem in the collection, “Migraine,” begins, “It starts at the end: the lights of cars / distorted to a burst, for a second / like asterisks extravagant and huge, / arguments shining.” Migraine light, or aura, is characterized by sensory disturbances such as flashing lights, blurred vision, or blind spots. The exact cause of migraines (the neurological disease) is still largely unknown, but those who suffer from migraine headaches know that they can feel an awful lot like dying—or starting at the end. What we do know is that migraines are brought on by a myriad of different factors and circumstances, like sleep strain, hormonal changes, or emotional stress. This information is relevant because Tierney differentiates each section using page breaks that contain only large asterisks resembling scrawny stars. So then, does each section indicate the beginning of a migraine episode? And if so, what are the factors contributing to each episode? Notably, asterisks are utilized in writing to add context to something or to signify something that has been omitted. Tierney suggests that in the dire migraine state, it can feel impossible not to hyper-fixate on what is right in front of you—or what’s not.

This focus on omission, both in vision and in writing, guides readers to an image that pops up throughout the collection: holes. After reminiscing on the death of his aunt, the speaker touches on “Holes where holes are not supposed to be,” though it isn’t clear whether these holes occur in the body or mind. Later, the poem “Ideation” brusquely begins, “Inside, the hole waits.” The speaker avoids this hole as best he can, but it becomes clear that he can only step around an active negative space so many times. “In a way,” he muses, “you are already inside it. / You’ve stared into the hole / through the thought of a hole.” When holes materialize within us, and when we are assigned the insurmountable task of living with their ramifications, we do whatever we can to fill them, to lessen their impact. But Tierney warns us that the desire to fill a void can morph into cravings that often take on a mind of their own in the face of personal tragedy. In “Polyphagia,” the speaker realizes, “all that time me / thinking it was hunger, all that time, seeking some shadow, / when it was a shadow seeking.” At what point does the continued need to sidestep pain become a hazardous hunt for validation outside the self? The poem’s last line seems to offer a partial answer: “Turns out rock bottoms not a problem, he said, when you begin / without a bottom.

Rise and Float is, if anything, a testament to Brian Tierney’s mastery of diction and form. Like migraines, he possesses the galvanizing and mind-twisting ability to transform our perceptions, as well as our ideas surrounding those perceptions, by generating imagery like “scraps of trash” that “greenly drift like unraveled petals of water lettuce.” Tierney shows that the lowest points of human experience also prompt us to view the world in a new light, implying that an unfamiliar but authentic vibrance may be an unintended aftereffect of anxiety, depression, loss, or suffering. At other times, though, his poems can be jarringly straightforward, such as when the speaker admits in “Breakdown,” “This is in lieu / of what I really want to say.”  The cheeky parallel in this line is that the speaker is being direct about his indirectness. What, then, does language offer us if we can use it to modify our perceptions but cannot use it to communicate our most central emotional experiences to those around us?

Tierney explores this concept further with his employment of an evasive it, which some readers will recall is a technique similarly used by Tracy K. Smith in her 2011 Pulitzer-winning poetry collection, Life on Mars. (She also happens to be the first endorser on the back cover of Tierney’s collection.) The first instance of this it occurs in “Preamble with Pilgrimage Inside”: “You’re imagining It already / as something else. . . eternity on earth.” The word appears again in “All Stars Are Lights, Not All Lights Are Stars,” when the speaker says, “What’s next, I see it. Balancing there like a melon / on the point of a stick.” It is desirable like “the watercolor end of a watercolor trail,” but it’s also narrowly unattainable. Whereas Smith’s it is a stand-in for a kind of universal truth, Tierney’s it points to a state of being that is just out of reach—like stillness, or peace. Because “it” is a pronoun used to replace or substitute for objects, Tierney’s emphasis on it also seems to underscore an absence of direct communication and an inability to truly know others through language. In “Tied Islands,” the speaker expands on this fear:

Even if
there is space, today, for a dream
of green islands in the distance between us,
my friends and me, I think
some of them
don’t know me at all—

How do we justify ourselves and our former selves to others? Is that even possible when we are sinking, full of holes? Tierney ends the poem with an em dash—the sign of a thought that hasn’t been completed. Because he leaves space for the idea to continue being drawn out, he also opens up the possibility that, maybe, the speaker’s suspicions aren’t completely based in fact. After all, he says, “I’m trying, these days, to believe again / in people.”

Rise and Float is a tapestry of life that has been woven together with numerous memories: a cousin who died by suicide, the loss of a father to cancer, a struggle with bulimia. The question of how memory interacts with grief arises again and again, and Tierney shows how the act of remembrance can be excruciating, but also “kind of an accomplishment.” At one point, the speaker shares, “I also dreamed I was next to you and the memory / of your wholeness remained / somehow / suggested / by dismemberment: pieces.” Though memory is fragmented by nature, we often think that to keep something alive, we need to preserve its wholeness, keep it safely intact. Our speaker is frustrated that he can’t prevent moments in time from breaking apart as the world moves forward, despite his efforts. In “Wormhole,” as he revisits a gut-wrenching conversation with his mother, he recalls, “These rooms’ll outlive you I had told her once / in spite.” By the poem’s end, he goes on to say, “The treasure / I thought at the outset was wholeness, was not wholeness.” And there it is. The quiet acceptance of brokenness. A truce, defined by an approach to living that ultimately comes down to doing the best one can. In the final poem of the collection, the speaker says, “it’s all right, love, how we don’t love / living.” And isn’t that the whole truth? Whatever we’re doing—whatever we need to do to navigate this confusing, charged, breathtaking world—is enough.

An object cannot float without some part of it being below the surface of the water. And even if all we can do is patch our holes enough to keep the air in, remember that hollow things float too. Brain Tierney takes a humane approach and tenderly guides his readers toward a settlement with ever-present grief. There’s something comforting about setting aside the quest for “wholeness” in order to step back and take in what, and who, linger all around us; “Thou art small in thy life, can you not see?”

About the Reviewer

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