by Traci Brimhall
Southern Illinois University Press 2010
Reviewed by C.J. Opperthauser
“it sings for no reason”
Traci Brimhall’s strong debut collection, Rookery, is littered with images of birds. A gorgeous line about a bird or birds or something having to do with birds–a dead chickadee found on a porch, an owl frightened by a person’s nightmare–inevitably finds its way into the fabric of almost every poem. These recurring bird images, though sometimes fleeting and often quite minor, suggest both a connection with nature and a realistic view regarding the flighty, temporary aspects of emotion and love. The birds, then, imply a larger devotion: finding the eternal in the fleeting.
This means a significant amount of focus on tensions that result from love and sex. Brimhall consistently establishes such tension with simple conflict, but also with vivid, precise, often haunting details. The very end of “Chastity Belt Lesson” reads: “He kisses the back of her neck and makes a joke. / She clears her throat, slides her knife through a tomato.” The last line, while a simple image, is powerful in conveying withheld emotions. The guts and ooze and redness of a sliced tomato during a tense moment between two people rattles the senses and the nervous system. There is violence in that seemingly innocent scene. Anger.
Throughout Rookery, Brimhall exposes both a tenderness and dirtiness in sex, as well as the greed and hunger that it can elicit. Here are four lines from “To the Tall Stranger Who Kept His Hands in His Pockets, Fourteen Years Later”:
Maybe you wanted to teach me the wind’s easy reach
of my thighs. Or maybe you needed me to know
you could crush me to the corkscrew hairs
on your chest, if you wanted to, you could hold me.
Sex in these lines is both delicate and animalistic. Key words promote this–needed, crush, corkscrew, hold. Yet the image of wind on skin is soft. It’s compelling, even rational, to think of sex as both of these seemingly incompatible qualities. Sex is both fleeting and eternal–“if you wanted to, you could hold me.” These poems are very carefully crafted to handle competing ideologies.
So Brimhall takes unexpected whacks at God and religious ideation when she has the chance, but also approaches devotion with care and grace; the world can be holy if specific conceptions of God are delusional. In “Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse,” use of the word “Hallelujah” is mostly ironic, but more than a little sincere: “The saguaros swell with rain. / Hallelujah. The mysteciti’s heart is big enough to crawl / through and it sings for no reason, hallelujah.” The poet includes praise for male seahorses carrying their young and for avocados clinging to trees. It is as if Brimhall understands impassioned devotion and wishes to worship, instead, the simple, the overlooked, the soon to depart but eternally real–which is not a new devotion in poetry, but one handled here with deftness and intellect.