The best word to describe Laura McCullough’s newest book might be “fearless.” This may seem strange, as many of the poems deal with the horrors and threats of the world. These are not poems without fear, but poems that directly confront the speaker’s fears, and in so doing, they offer a way through.
The poem “Saturation,” from the second of the book’s three sections, articulates this impulse clearly and exemplifies some other common features of the collection as well. The poem begins with a plea to the over-saturated, neon modern world: “Intensity! Oh, immutable hue, do not assert yourself. / Why even gray has differences in lightness or brightness, / and who lives in anything less than vividness?” The first blocky stanza covers ecological territory (“New Jersey spring days, / cast in a toxic glow” and “Murky water, dark wall paint, / the VOCs eating out your brainstem”) before the poem turns to television, “that cliché of self-medication.” Where it gets really interesting, though, is when the form shifts to a more spaced-out line and a stanza that staggers across the page. McCullough asks:
Does anyone howl anymore? About anything?
Oh, Corso! Oh, Ginsberg!
Oh, Patti Smith at his knee
all elbow and jawbone
and hair-product-less hair singing
Frederick, not afraid to say name of care
night of wonder
wings of a dove,
yes, scream, dance, fuck, sing,
call the sky
a neo-fantastical-dream-of flight
The desire to howl at the injustices of world is a motivating force for this book, but the poem also takes a jarringly beautiful turn at the end. “Paint the sky with the forgiveness you owe,” McCullough writes, “punch a hole through this saturated life / and step right through.”
The invocation of other poets, both past and present, is a lovely, although occasionally mystifying, feature of this book. McCullough converses with many different writers, some on a first-name basis. Expressing a similar idea to “Saturation,” the poem “There Were Only Dandelions” declaims: “Not all poems are meant to entertain, / like Jericho said,” referring to a poem from Jericho Brown’s first book, Please. Later the poem references both Williams and Stevens, big enough names that they are easily recognized.
While the book’s first section covers many different topics, the second and third focus heavily on the speaker’s role as mother, particularly as a mother to sons. One example of this appears in “They Dream of AK47s,” a poem which focuses primarily on the speaker’s son’s experience in a gun club. When he tells his mother about how a friend of his fired a gun into the body of a dead deer “to see what buckshot can do,” the speaker says that she thinks, “of cats, of women, the cave everyone wants to enter, / the need for damage dropped frogs, / boys told not to cry like a girl,” and then after referencing William Stafford’s poem “Traveling Through the Dark” (also about a dead deer), she comes down to thinking of “the inadequacy of language / poems / do I have to say mothers?” This fear of not being enough, of not being able to defend her sons from the violence of the world, is echoed through several poems, but there remains also a sense of hope and love. “They Dream of AK47s” ends with the simple couplet, “Everyday, I tell Hunter I love him. / Everyday, he says, Hush ma, I know.”
The violence depicted in this book is difficult to absorb at times. News stories from around the world haunt the collection with violence, death, and injustice, and some linger long in the reader’s memory. What lingers even longer, however, is the sense that facing these horrors in words is a way to deal with them. After stating that poems are not meant to entertain, “There Were Only Dandelions” continues:
no, not entertain, but sing just the same,
a polyphony of song
birds in the morning,
snow geese aflight, guns rocketing,
barrel out, sound through
the beating blood,
bleating animals, beseeching
all those river gods
for some respite from this suffering.
The moments of beauty in the book, the moments of love and hope, provide such a respite from the suffering of the world.