Reviewed By Emily Wolahan
- Kore Press (2015)
- 56 pages
In the ode, exists the exalted. In exaltation, lives transformation. Scorpyn Odes by Laynie Browne presents poems that on the one hand address the insect-cipher embodied by the scorpion and on the other hand discuss the need for and complications surrounding departure. This chapbook is a duet of short lyrics and compact prose poems exploring the dread and sublime in the politically fraught, ecologically doomed world around us. Browne brings forward the terror inherent in the sublime, in a tone that is not terrorized but symphonic.
In the epigraph, Browne references the field guide, The Life of the Scorpion: “The Scorpion is an uncommunicative creature, secret in his practices.” Its “uncommunicativeness” holds a central role in the elusive stature of the scorpion. In her opening poem, she writes “I vowed not to become / the nullifying silence / But to nullify the other / paralysis being born // To speak with the elevated / precision of silence.” A “precision of silence” presents a delicate balance to strike, to express silence through words, whose central function is to communicate. In the “Departure” series, Browne finds a way to express the power of silence through the poem’s list form. These poems list, in increasing detail, what the speaker will depart from. There is already something “missing” from the grammar of a list. The list form often has few full sentences (though Browne inserts full sentences to smooth out the tiring quality a pure list can have). Browne takes full advantage of the form, in poems both about exiting, normative ways of thinking and performing the exit. Several fragment sentences in the poems begin “from”:
From being elsewhere aslant while we are lying upon assumptions. From I must have it. The “it” we must have taken as itself, whether it be person, book, meter, thing. Replaces “thingness” with “here-ness” and “hear-ness.” Departure from not seeing them as they trot off into the distant years. […] From numbers that blind and besmirch. From wielding hoodlums, hoodies, hurdles. From provincial noodlers, bombastic ripped shams and disintegrated curtains. From, just leave it to me. From thirteen feet of water under the bridge. From the circles under eyed bruises borrowing arms. From inappropriate questions. After all we just met. From how the West was won.
The departure is always from what physically and philosophically plagues you. If you exit, you can breathe.
If you can breathe, you can sing. The “Scorpyn Odes,” interspersed between the “Departure” poems, celebrate the ancient and mythic insect. The scorpion is spirit animal—other worldly and unknown. At first, Browne’s approach to the insect has a light touch: “At the edge of night / Like a miniature lobster / With no ocean” and “Like a miniature vessel of time // Please hand me that scorpion glass.” But the role of the scorpion develops into something more mysterious, “magical” and ethereal as the collection continues:
Fears speak of themselves
in tones, in tombs
Take the ultraviolet light
The thin winter crawled
Beneathe the tongue
As spirit animals go, a poisonous insect is an inspired choice. The scorpion is enough part of the cultural hive mind that any reader knows a few things about it coming in. From there, Browne skirts between giving facts and invoking its power:
May you divine such
First hand reverence for thus
Proverbial tip of tail
Liquid pearl swells upon telson
At your feet
Guarder of tombs
Further poems invoke protection from, predators of, symptoms of, and remedies for the scorpion. While the “Departure” poems are rooted in the present, their antidote, the “Scorpyn Ode,” lives squarely in the eternal. The scorpion exists as a chant, either whispered or shouted, across culture and era.
What is sung in praise, what is listed in dread—they exist side-by-side in Browne’s challenge to how our world is and whether we should continue to stay in it. The political tone in Scorpyn Odes doesn’t explicitly address any one contemporary event. Instead, the list of situations and emotional realities from which the poet decided to “depart” has a cumulative effect and evokes so many screwed up things in our world around us. Though they have little else in common, the trifecta of “exit, voice, and loyalty” from political economist Albert O. Hirschman comes to mind. Hirschman suggests that there are three basic reactions a consumer can have to a decline in quality of a product. She can remain “loyal” to the product and company, expecting change will eventually come. She can “voice” a complaint and campaign for change. Or she can “exit” by ceasing to use the product. For Hirschman, the trifecta also applies to citizenry and states. A dissatisfied citizen can react with “loyalty,” “voice,” or “exit.” The perspective an economist like Hirschman does not address, however, is how an artist reacts to dissatisfaction with the state that surrounds her. Browne has found a way to meld all three of Hirschman’s elements. Here, a poet uses voice to examine the nature of exit, the very action of which expresses loyalty to the surrounding world.
In Scorpyn Odes, there is a cagey hope. Part of that comes from the call to depart from what is no longer acceptable, as in “Departure from a person who you thought you once knew escorted to a silence in which everyone else is speaking endlessly.” Just as the voice behind “Departures” is wary of counting too much on things lasting, the scorpion evokes the mythic and eternal by listing the myths that surround it:
Children of Tiamat, dragon mother of the universe
Scorpion-man with bird feet
Falaknuma Palace of Hyderabad, India
in the shape of a scorpion with two pincers
Spreading out to the North, as wings to the building
Perseus slew Medusa
Blood of her severed neck turned to
Scorpions and snakes as it touched the ground.
The final “Departure” poem ends: “From the storm which forebodes but does nothing to forbid the stalker, the shooter, the saluting sentiment. The dime talking papers. From having to go hurriedly, in the middle of—. From the middle of nothing. From the long-playing night blindness of the sought.” Browne delves into how verbal expression can critique the world and change a reader’s point of view. It’s not the “dime talking papers” that ever achieve this; it’s poetry.
Emily Wolahan is the author of Hinge. Her poems have appeared in Boston Review, Volt, Fourteen Hills, Gulf Coast and other journals. Her essays can be found in The New Inquiry and the anthology Among Margins. She won the Loraine Williams Poetry Prize in 2016 and the Bennett Poetry Prize in 2008. She is Associate Editor at Two Lines Press and founding Editor at JERRY Magazine. She lives in San Francisco.