Ed Note: As part of our hope to cover the smaller — but just as important — works in the chapbook world, we invite our reviewers to cover chapbooks, novellas, or short works of similar thematic materials. Here, AnnaLee Barclay investigates two chapbooks of writers grappling with the individual against the larger world.
Identity is neither static nor definable. It’s nearly impossible to pin down into an exact phenomenon, only bringing up more questions and factors such as whether a true identity is what you think of yourself or what others think of you. Like most things, the reality lies somewhere in the grey middle that is always changing. Hailey Higdon’s poems can be read over and over, while holding different truths each time yet never contradicting the others. She divides the collection into four parts, which could be read as four separate poems broken up to have one stanza on each page or as four larger sections made up of small poems on each page. Like the fluidity of consciousness and the attempt of memory to frame it, Hard Some
(Spuyten Duyvil Press
, 2019) can be taken as a larger, flowing experience, or a fragmented meditation on independent moments.
Higdon uses strong imagery of nature and the magic of the mundane everyday life to explore the particular experience of queerness in identity — “…if the prototype of queer is determinate / two women try to remind themselves / the safety of having a regular job or / a corner store.” In “A Wild Permanence”, the first section/poem, Higdon likens being in society to being on a lake: “some in a boat and others wondering how long / it will take to sink the middle, which is terrible.” Towards the end, she writes, “we agree to be on water / swimming at our own risk,” the “we” being two lesbians, but also anyone who is swimming at their own risk in a lake that would rather see them drown. If society largely tries to keep people small, how is identity formed by fighting against that which attempts to define you?
Another aspect of identity that derives from external circumstances is family. In Reilly Cox’s debut poetry chapbook The Death of Sargon the Gardener
(Seven Kitchens Press
, 2020) identity is largely explored through familial ties and generational trauma. They start off, even before the dedication page, with “Dramatis Personae”, a character list (after Maurice Manning) of those who will appear, suggesting a sort of family saga told through poetry. These characters have multiple identification markers that are in relation to others (i.e. “the son’s ghost / the floating man / Robert the gardener”), as well as ones who are nameless (i.e. “the witching daughter / the once & future King”). Each of these characters is defined by others, essentially stripping them of pure individuality—while we all experience solitary consciousness, our lives are perpetually marked by externalities.
Like Higdon, Cox’s poems contain remarkable imagery of the natural world as both its own universe and its relation to ours — the last of the characters listed is “et Tomatoes, More Than You Could Eat”, which stand as tokens of grief and love for this family. Throughout their poems, the family is haunted by ghosts of one another and events they’ve lived through, such as tending to the dying. In “The Witching Daughter Cares for the Dead”, she is tending to her father whose health is failing, as well as the ghosts of those who have already passed. The Witching Daughter says, “When a person dies, there is one last thump as the heart stops beating.” In a later poem, “The Death of Sargon the Gardener”, the patriarch grandfather of the family passes and Cox beautifully ties tomatoes and death together in the last lines:
If anyone asked
what that sound had been, he would
have told them that it is the sound of his
son’s ghost finally taking off his other
shoe upstairs, though that’s always how
and the thump of a tomato outside.
Ultimately, Cox reminds us that the importance of individuality is futile in a larger sense — “The vines are creeping in. We won’t be around for when they bloom.” Both authors achieve a rare accomplishment of holding two seemingly opposite ideas in equal weight: the necessity of always trying to know yourself vs. the insignificance of a self in the grand scheme of things. While Cox’s cast of characters are haunted by trauma, abuse, murder, cancer, and familial strife, the tomatoes and flowers continue to grow, propagating life beyond their caretakers’ mortality.
Higdon begins Hard Some with an epigraph from “My Interior Vita”, an essay by Will Alexander: “Life being an unbroken motion of consciousness, poetry is for me the celebration of that unbrokenness.” The essay is largely about Alexander’s connection to and understanding of the magical Otherworld, which can be accessed through poetry due to the creative and magical nature of language. Creativity, he posits, alters all levels of consciousness and blends together “a concert of worlds.” In both Hard Some and The Death of Sargon the Gardener, the authors achieve this multi-faceted melody by fiercely pulling together the external and internal of life, miniature worlds of circumstances and relationships, to create beautiful bodies of work that explore the larger system of identity and what it means to navigate human existence as an individual.