by Hillary Gravendyk
Omnidawn 2011
Reviewed by Diana Arterian


“Little hive buried in my chest, little swarm.”

Hillary Gravendyk’s Harm is, in reductive terms, an exploration of her experience while receiving a double lung transplant after eleven years of enduring a pulmonary disorder. Though this is captivating in itself as a platform for a set of poems, Gravendyk’s text goes beyond, employing forms and language that are immediate, affecting and unflinchingly accurate to the terrors of being in a hospital and semi-aware after a major surgery. In one poem she writes, “the eye / cannot be trusted, cannot rest.” This seems the most accurate description of Harm. The eye is Graendyk’s predominant mode of perception in the poems, and she often leans on the eye as an image as well as a flawed sense. Her hand is charred, black, green, then bark. This too is a consistent thread – the dovetailing of the body with the landscape, the inner and outer environments (“Nimbus cloud lung”). Everything is connected as bodily boundaries are muddled through blurred vision. In an interview on Omnidawn’s site, Gravendyk states, “The title ‘Harm’ wants to trouble easy divisions between cure and harm, landscape and body, wakefulness and sleep.”

Brenda Hillman, who selected Harm for Omnidawn’s first book prize, introduces the volume, addressing Gravendyk’s regular use of the asterisks: “its pages [are] sometimes punctuated by asterisks which suggest small flowers, snowflakes or abstract ink-breath.” Though I agree with Hillman, I would add the more tangible possibility of a small fleck of blood. For in the poem “Exuberance,” Gravendyk writes, “when I cough there is blood in the air // …it’s so hard / to take it seriously. Bright little hearts and stars and carnations on a / white cloth.” After reading “Exuberance” it was hard for me not to see these asterisks as Gravendyk’s bodily cost as she can relay it typographically, her very blood in this book. A portion of the poem “Seven Sins of Memory” reads:


How the sun turns over the body, returning
Light like a sweaty hand covering the face
Here, the atmosphere of a closed box


The final page of Harm itself bears a lonely asterisk. Or perhaps it is her body, for, as the title prose poem states, “Starred with damage, the body.”

I saw Gravendyk read from Harm last fall. The context of the book was tangible – she was hooked up to a small machine that helped her breathe, her mechanized breaths halting her speech at times. Physical hindrance is palpable in Harm, even in the recurrence of specific words throughout the text. One of the most common is the use of words such as “braid,” “knot,” “bind” or other forms of fetters – an obsession also held by Blake. Gravendyk has an appreciation for the music of repetition throughout the book and within poems alike, not afraid to hit those bells over and over, and having faith in that particular beauty. She employs a similar practice with images. Charred body parts surface throughout, as do bees – initially in her beloved’s pockets, and more strikingly in her lungs, signifying the acuteness of the pain there: “Hived lung, yellow and tangled with blue air”; “Little hive buried in my chest, little swarm.” Gravendyk describes her experience with clarity, but also while honoring the general confusion of her state, whether it be that her lungs feel like hives of stinging bees or churning fiberglass, her throat full of dandelions. While she often conflates portions of the body with items from nature, she also heeds the fact that her survival is anything but natural. In the prose poem “Scar,” she writes, “Now an engraved avenue stretches across the chest; islands spangle the belly. Call me cyborg, call me monster, miracle.”

In the interview on Omnidawn’s site, Gravendyk writes about Harm, stating, “The book is about waiting and recovering—the poems are the boundary around an empty space of unremembered experience.” Indeed, the poems straddle dreams and wakefulness, comprehension and delusion. All are an attempt to understand the unknowable, and all pay heed to the experience of her trauma, while somehow maintaining beauty and voice. In the final poem, “Imperative,” Gravendyk writes, “I guess I’d written time was honey. Wrote myself a landscape. Slow scenery, / combed gold across the mouth and eye.”