Book Review

It’s no secret that the world is changing radically; from massive (and righteous) civil unrest to ecological devastation that is being dismissed or ignored, we can no longer be certain that how things appear is the truth, or that anything will remain as it is or seems for any length of time. Alexandra Mattraw’s collection We Fell into Weather balances on the knife’s edge of our current moment—thinking through the connections between environmental catastrophe and the human body in ways that remind us of what it means to experience the world with our sensing bodies rather than our thinking minds. The collection reminds us, too, of what violent thought patterns do on an encompassing scale.

The collection begins by calling forth something almost all of us can relate to: great grandmothers and grandfathers. Their presence in the very first lines of “We are biologically responsible” evokes ideas of inheritance, lineage, tradition: “as in my great grandmother was forced by you / great grandfather or was it flipped either by / skin or word but the outcome the same.” Mattraw writes further:

. . . together, they
travel and sew this thread our bodies without even
trying they spool and slip inside until they become one
piece of cotton : until we become one rocking cradle
: one swinging diagnosis : one arbitrary filler we’ll call

These somewhat-distant relatives (personified throughout the collection as “Lottie”—whom we can assume is the speaker’s great grandmother), the poem insists, are woven into our bodies by the very nature of DNA—we can no more escape from them than we can escape from what our genetics code us for. And what seems at first to be an affirmation of inheritance, of lineage and linking to our pasts, quickly unravels as the poems progress. Mattraw evokes again and again the terrifying reality of climate change that is increasing epigenetic mutation. The plastics in the water that we drink—addressed by the poems titled “GPGP” (Great Pacific Garbage Patch)— change us. Our awareness of our planet’s warming is called to mind via references to the Paris Accords; cityscapes are juxtaposed with imagery of plants and nonhuman animals. The droughts in California rear ugly heads with the reminder that they have distinct causes in the lines:

. . . chime
muddy bark
and spool sage

to know well
how droughts need
awakenings :

And in the midst of all this, we, as readers, know that toxins spilled into all aspects of our environments—as a result of human industrial, consumptive, and chemical activity—are altering our DNA. It’s impossible to ignore, especially within these poems. This being the case, as it also was for our ancestors who lived during and after the advent of industrialization, the collection asks of us: How do we know what in our genetics was inherited and what has been altered? What can we say is familial and what mutation? What of the familial is a result of mutation? When these questions form from the poems—striking most clearly with the question “what else has our DNA/plagiarized?”—the poetic forms begin to unravel. The sentences that hinge on each other with a colon become images jarringly distanced by slashes. The story of family, the connections that are both physically and ideologically fathomed, tie us to who we are as bodies in a storied world. This tie, however, disappears under the knowledge that bodies are now suspect.

But the slashes have multiple uses, and the violence in their acts of severing often points to the ideological root of societal and ecological violence. In “1968 / 2017,” Mattraw uses slashes in a way that draws out the aggression of hypermasculine smash-and-grab thinking. The poem includes direct quotes from Donald Trump regarding his view of the female body and a reference to an unspecified Candy Man—which can be read as, perhaps, reference to serial rapist and murderer Dean Corll, or to how pedophiles lure victims, or even to the promise of someone who makes the world sweeter (and here, “Make America Great Again” rings in our ears). There’s a reference to chokeholds, which are used by the American police to kill members of the BIPOC community regularly, and to the Paris Accords. By putting all of these seemingly insular events, words, and people in the same space, the poem makes it devastatingly clear that sexual violence, police brutality, and environmental degradation are all the product of the same systems.

As a counterpoint to this way of thinking, the collection includes two series scattered throughout: “Neurodivergence” and “Ecodivergence.” Each poem in either series has the same title, respectively, and is placed on the page in a different way than any of the others in the collection—sometimes very close to the bottom, sometimes entirely right-margin aligned and thin up until the final line, and sometimes the narrow stanzas wander from margin to margin. The difference in location on the page mirrors the difference these poems exhibit from the thinking of conquest: each are deeply rooted in the physical experience of the world and resist the urge to write ideology over sensations. In one, the speaker says, “Laughter shimmied hand- / holds. Slip their wonder palm / to palm.” Equally reveling and revelatory, these lines prioritize a way of imagining the body’s place in the world based solely on touch. In another:

Inherited     forms.      Talc     blurry
stars. Blood test tremors
Goodnight Moon. Not
                     double     vision.     Her
                     hand on my chest.
                  Pills for side effects
                          of side effects.

Here, the speaker highlights the bodily experience of pharmaceuticals, the role medication plays in all manner of maladies. When one is suffering an illness with potentially epigenetic sources (like cancer—which often leads to the patient taking multitudes of pills to deal with side effects of symptom-fighting drugs), or is taking medication to ensure their brain—their way of thinking about and within the world—falls into line with what is expected from members of our society, the pharmacy becomes a central location in their lives. Neurodivergent doesn’t just mean an alternative way of thinking, but a way of interacting with the world that is deemed unacceptable—which includes all mental illnesses, as well as handicaps, things that we are expected to fix about ourselves in order to be valued by others and valuable to society. Taking all of this into consideration, we have to admit that ecodivergent must refer to environments that have been deemed unsuitable to human society, the ones that must be changed for the sake of our comfort.

In a nod to divergent ways of thinking, the collection ends with a poem called “Dear Alternative Medicine,” a love letter to ways of healing that exist outside our model of prescription drugs and lab coats. The more holistic and non- or anti-Western approaches to medicine are, here, described in ways that seem to work in tandem with natural processes and the body. The poem opens, “You say healing begins at the wrist,” and from here, the methods of making a body feel at ease as things that facilitate healing without the need for excessive pills and endless side effects are laid out. Where the healing provided by drug after drug is unsettling—“A loss of hair. What knots / Celtic in drains”—these alternatives soothe to the point where the speaker asserts, “a dahlia ripples signals through my ankle and out to / the living.” With the ecological and social, as well as the medical, at stake in this book, the return to ways of healing that decenter the pharmaceutical industry signals a return (and it is a return because many holistic, non-pharmaceutical healing methods were eradicated, hidden, or otherwise obfuscated by colonialism) to ways of thinking about our relationship to the world not as one of dominion and violence, but one of what Donna Haraway would call “becoming-with”—an entangled, multifaceted, and ever-mutating living that contains, in its complexity, room for unhindered, mutual flourishing. The lack of colons or slashes in this poem lends to the feeling of reciprocity—free of both hinging (a device that forces relationality) and severing; the images and words flow as if they were meant to be in the same space.

While the speaker is, presumably, an American with American concerns, we can’t ignore the fact that the fallout of environmental catastrophe is spread unequally throughout the world. If this question of epigenetic mutation is a part of living in a Western nation, what must that question mean in countries that have been and currently are being ravaged by the fossil fuel industry, by neoliberal and capitalistic colonialism, by plastic particles in improperly-filtered drinking water? We can’t ignore the fact that in the places most disproportionately and negatively affected by climate change, Western garbage, and the demands of Western comfort, the majority of the population are BIPOC. This collection is so timely and so important because it hits us where it hurts and in a cultural moment when we are primed to imagine how our actions are affecting others negatively, not just how we are affected by others. If this is how frightening it is to live in the world for us—in a cushioned but fraught America, likely also in a space of privilege—how much more terrifying is it to live elsewhere, even in your own city? What more is at stake in being a body that both looks and experiences the world much differently than you do? We Fell into Weather prompts us into asking these questions of ourselves, and beautifully so.

About the Reviewer

Jordan Osborne is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University, where she works as an associate editor and the social media manager of Colorado Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Canary and Rogue Agent.