When disasters fly by faster than billboards, how are we to bear witness to them? Laura Eve Engel’s debut collection, Things That Go, has an eye for humor and tenderness, but it is an eye running out of places to look. Engel’s interrogation into the act of witness is shaped around five retellings of the biblical story of Lot’s wife, who, looking back on the destruction of her home city, was transformed into a pillar of salt—“a monument of its destruction.” This archetypal frame is taken for a ride—in cars, trains, rafts, and buses—to look at a contemporary American landscape shaped by an ideology that matches progress with perpetual forward motion.
Monument and momentum are two hinge points in the collection. The speaker of Engel’s poems concedes, from the very start, that it is easy to get caught up in the restless and expansionist urges of classic Americana. Beginning her first section with a poem titled “Home on the range,” Engel looks out over the mesas of New Mexico and declares, “I love the great American west / where the moon hunts us / for a living. // It draws closer and then away from me. / Me! Where I cannot be stopped.” This American sublimity of endless westward expansion is quickly problematized: “And yet wherever I go I find myself / on my knees before a feeling so big / it’s already been annexed // by the military.”
If, in modernism, technologies of locomotion were symbols of a unilateral imposition of human will, for Engel, vehicles figure largely as stages upon which things happen to the speaker. In “As if in a Cave,” Engel brings us back to the most passive and vulnerable form of transportation known to humans: the school bus. This poem makes a startling juxtaposition by mapping the history of human scientific and geographic conquest onto the body of an adolescent. It opens:
School bus-bottled late light
of day, someone else’s knees shoved
in your back, who knows how
your little tits might be growing
under there, kicking up through you
It is early in this poem—life is just beginning to stir, and it encounters the violence of this early, primitive vehicle. Just as quickly as Engel establishes the adolescent body as vulnerable and under attack, she transfigures it into the operative advancement of early humanity over the landscape:
Your thighs flush
with the seat spread into afternoon
as geography, a new sea some
early people had to cross
to get to the part where history
starts. Weren’t they fucking
impatient, sitting around waiting
to invent cookery, the calendar,
ships? A mapless people lolling
by the water on the rocks, each
desiring someone who’ll really
treat her like a conqueror
The “thing that goes” in the poem is not the vehicle—none of its motion is conveyed in the poem. The motion comes from the thighs spreading on the seat like a sea-crossing people, or the “new tiny tits” kicking, punching, or popping as “slow firecrackers.” The indeterminacy of motion mirrors the true indeterminacy of agency in Engel’s description of “early people.” They are at once expanding and waiting around; they invent almost as though it happens to them; they look outward for someone else to make them conquerors.
The gaze of the book narrows in on its centermost poem—when the question of witnessing stops being hypothetical and becomes very real. In “I can watch a man in a cage get burned alive,” Engel interrogates the infinitesimal moment of willpower present in the action of clicking a video link—and the indelible impression it leaves on the viewer:
I can watch a man in a cage get burned alive.
I can watch his raised hands join at his forehead.
I can speculate about a body in prayer.
If I can watch an orange prayer go up in a man’s body
I can never unwatch it.
A speculation about who I will be, then. After.
Watching and speculating. Waiting and inventing. Growing and moving. There is an experience of viewing—particular to the internet—that leaves the viewer thinking, What just happened to me? There is a consent to click, and then we are assaulted and implicated. Why is it that the genre of “reaction videos” has become so popular on social media? We want to see that very moment when the viewer is struck and transformed, and to rewatch it—just as Engel has us rewatching the reaction of Lot’s wife.
As Engel contemplates her own complicity in witnessing the burning of a man in a cage, the next poem pulls us forward into another moment of complicit viewing—Inauguration Day, 2017. Titled “Burden of Belonging,” this poem reads as a public elegy, in which the speaker asks, “why am I glad for this burden / of belonging when others are not / to whom do some of us not belong / who hurt some of us so.” And the tragedies continue to run by as the speaker searches for a place to rest her eyes. As Octopus Books says of the collection, “These poems suggest a constant and powerful movement forward as an antidote to the current moment.” The movement forward, however, has less of the enthusiasm of a speedy getaway, and more of the despair of the “doomscrolling”—the frenzied scrolling through bad news. (“Lately I’ve been looking at things that hurt me. / Caring, as I do, not at all for art”). And it may be that doomscrolling is a very apt analogy for the motif of Lot’s wife.
At a certain point, Lot’s wife will have nowhere to look that is not a fire. Is she to be endlessly implicated? In the final retelling of the story of Lot’s wife, “Lot’s Wife Speaks,” she asks, “To what degree do I have to move to be able to see // the flames […] now I see endlessly // a child caught smoking forced to smoke until she’s sick”. The collection is engrossingly deft at uncovering places for love, growth, and humor amidst the endless forward momentum into the flames.
About the Reviewer
Sean Reynolds is a critic, poet, and translator living in Chicago. His essays on poetic translation have appeared in Postmodern Culture, Journal of Modern Literature, and Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies. His book-length translation of Gustave Roud’s Air of Solitude was released by Seagull Books in Spring of 2020.