about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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The Wrack Line
A Review of The Wrack Line
by Pat Hanahoe-Dosch

Spencer Dew

High tide leaves it mark with an accumulation of debris—a detergent bottle and a polished piece of wood, a camo koozie and a crab claw. There is a mournful eclecticism here on the beach. The physical marker of time is trash, which itself decays at different measures, the quick dissolve of flesh contrasting with the seemingly immortal half-life of the cheapest accoutrements of human drama. Rotting sea louse, unviable egg inside a devil’s purse. The neck of a green glass bottle, a shopping bag inflated like a bladder, half full of the sea that vomited it up.

Such is the eclecticism of this collection, which takes on road rage, tourism, and the resentment only partially concealed at family holiday meals. We watch relationships crumble in silence and at select, time-sharpened words. We breathe the gritting, smothering night air of Cairo and traverse New Orleans with out-of-towners gawking at the “oven-vault tombs” of the cemeteries and the “marks of body counts” on ruined homes. The titillations of disaster, the blindness to slave markets where tourists now drink cocktails in plastic hand grenades, and the concomitant celebration of Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai or the colorful Native history behind a rug are all a bit pat, but the deeper problem with this book is a kind of solipsism sometimes specifically skewered yet sometimes exemplified, as disasters across the globe are understood only in relation to characters far removed from the actual suffering and who thus understand such events in terms of the butterfly effect or storm maps on a television screen or stink bugs clinging to a screen door. These are things in themselves, to be sure (like plums or wheelbarrows) and apt conveyors of poetic truth, but there is a slippage, here—like the tide that laps back against its own wrack line—between the object or position as metaphor or lens and the object or position as literal end in itself.

This dynamic comes to a head in a pair of poems I read as the conjoined centerpiece of the collection, a dual response to the police killing of an unarmed “black teenager,” his arms raised in “surrender.” The first poem imagines the impact of the bullets as blooming roses, petals of which are spread by the “warm night breeze”:

. . . Some
were crushed between people’s feet. Some
tapped on windows. Some knocked on doors. Some
rolled into street gutters and wept. Some
were picked up and carried in the palms of children. Those
grew into roses and multiplied....

People seize these roses, spreading their petals, in turn, though these are soon met with “tear gas, bullets, the stench / of gasoline and gunpowder,” forces presented as arising not as the result of specific actors, but on their own, part of the “summer of wild thorns and perfume.” I was left uneasy by this sleight of hand, by this aestheticizing of agony, the lyrical sweet of “thorns and perfume” seeming, to my mind, to obscure an officer of the law murdering a citizen and other officers mobilizing to contain citizens and impose military rule on their neighborhoods. Hanahoe-Dosch’s attention to the fear felt by these officers is admirable, but as it is the only emotion attributed to them, including the killer, they and the system they protect and the structures in which they act are masked in a cloud of innocence, just as very real clouds of teargas are, within this poem, presented as another form of perfume, a scent that arises from a magical effervescence of petals, spilling out into the streets. These metaphors make the resulting images too bloodless, removing their shock and horror, their stink and scream. A body was left to rot, on the street, in the sun, and protestors were made to choke and gag, to clench up and wince and groan.

The second poem, “Surrender 2,” offers an alternative take, starting again with the murder of this youth. After chronicling the daily lives of people—what they pick up at the grocery, what they drink, whether they are looking for jobs or not—this poem calls for “a remake, a metamorphosis, a revolution,” and seeks to fill the hands of people with food, to replace what was in their hands before. This is confusing, as the hands of such civilians were surely not full of weapons, and I’m not clear why protest signs should be replaced with donuts unless the actual problems being protested are, themselves, subject to miraculous renovation. In response to the murder of an unarmed child by agents of the state, the pardon granted by the state for such a murder, the deep structures of racist dehumanization and conjoined terror and seduction that allows for words like demon to enter into testimony as explanation and allows for agents equipped with the technology of war to lock down neighborhoods and trap citizens in their own homes under the name of preserving an unacceptable, a morally repugnant, status quo, the admonition to “Here, take an apple, a glass of water, or wine,” feels, regrettably, like a certain recent and disastrously tone-deaf soda ad.

I suspect this gesture is intended as an image of true revolution, a change of heart, a sharing of humanity through that simplest pleasure, food. I also suspect that the ad team hired by the corporate cola giant meant, really, to celebrate expressions of human diversity through art and love and the consumption of carbonated, sugary drinks. But that ad failed because while it is surely utopian to imagine the world coming together over a cold beverage, utopianism of such a strand obscures the problem, is possible only from a position of privilege, and thus contributes, following Adorno, to the very barbarism it imagines itself as an alternative to. An offer of an apple alone cannot serve as anecdote to a society founded on racism and maintained by violence. This is not to dismiss the spirit of the poem, or the impulse behind such a humane gesture. But perhaps, in protest of a child whose murder was permitted via the excuse of his essential non-humanness, the appropriate humane—and human—gesture would be to name him.

The teenager here left unnamed has a name, as do his fellow martyrs, male and female, and their names demand our saying, our reciting, and such recitation of names, while resolutely not poetry, renders moot one impulse to poeticize, to aestheticize and testify to a limited experience of their murders as social phenomenon, as so much protest and emotion, as what could be summarized and thus obscured, described and thus replaced as, say, “a summer of wild thorns and perfume.”

The Wrack Line, in the end, is, like the image of its title, a messy product, but one worth studying not only for its most successful bits and pieces but also as an example of one path of artistic response to the crises of our moment. To speak of poetry today is necessarily to speak of politics, but to speak of politics, of course, can mean many things, a broad and scattered line, spread across the beach, from placation to complicity, and likely with farther edges than that simplistic spectrum. Serious consideration of the two “Surrender” poems could make, for instance, for—albeit difficult, emotional, with tears as well as anger—enlightening and ultimately productive conversation among poets and in classrooms where poetry is confronted.

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