(Diode Editions, 2017)
Attempting to write a review of a truly excellent collection of poetry often feels, to me, like an effort both heroic and idiotic. The critic Coleridge, once upon a time, described prose as “words in their best order” and poetry as “the best words in their best order.” It’s an impossible undertaking, then, to try to describe what about a poem or collection of poems makes it “best.” At least, that’s how I’m feeling this afternoon after reading Remica Bingham-Risher’s wonderful new Starlight & Error for the second time in one sitting. What can I say except that sixty ounces of rose peony tea isn’t enough to dissolve the lump her work leaves in my throat? Or that Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” was never a favorite song of mine, but now I can’t stop listening? This is a book that can make even the most unsentimental reader’s heart ache. It commands your attention. When you try to pull yourself away, it lingers.
Bingham-Risher’s Starlight & Error, winner of the Diode Editions Book Award, employs prose poems, couplets, hybrid forms, formal verse, ekphrasis, and more with natural dexterity. As a whole, the collection explores a family’s multigenerational legacy of inflicting and surviving violence, and the daily, often fruitless, struggle to escape the cycle. The poems are written from multiple perspectives with one voice, that of a middle-aged woman damaged by her family’s grim history, recurring frequently as an anchor point. This woman’s voice is strong, fully human: she lends the collection a distinctly autobiographical feel that intensifies each poem’s emotional impact.
In “Domestic,” the woman returns to the house she grew up in and, although the house has changed over the years, its wooden fence replaced with a metal gate and seeming much too small to have contained her large family, it is still animate with past dramas. Standing outside the house, she “almost expect[s] to see / the blond woman ranting / front the front door / about our noise, our blackness, / the touting the neighborhood’s knowledge of our skeletons, / a bottle and half-empty / glass in her hand.” The poem goes on to describe the blue lights flashing atop police cars as the blond woman’s complaints are met with a full-on assault by the speaker’s family: “the women at war, / children yelling / obscenities from the door.”
“Domestic” could have easily devolved into cliché or gross stereotypes if it were written by a less talented poet. I wanted the blond woman to have mischaracterized her neighbors as “unwanted” and misjudged the nature of their “skeletons.” Bingham-Risher does not permit us this easy exit, however. The family’s beat-down of the blond woman is not righteous or even preservative. The poem closes:
And when it was well past
sauntered through the house
recalling blows. How sweet it was
to pummel someone
who knew nothing of us,
to watch her sobering,
diminished – like the old house
loosed of our secrets – silent,
learned, spent through.
The physical violence is horrible enough, yes. Worse, though, is the tradition of violence in this family. Imagine: generations celebrating the injuries they inflicted on the neighbor, savoring her diminishment. “Domestic” complicates the reader’s ability to empathize with the narrator and her family both in this poem and throughout the collection. Is the speaker in this poem or her family at all redeemable? What about the children who, perhaps knowing no better, emulated the vile behavior of the adults?
It would be reductive to dismiss the characters in “Domestic” and many of the other poems in Starlight & Error as morally repugnant or beyond repair. It is equally reductive, if not dishonest, to excuse the family’s treatment of the blond woman (and of each other) as learned behavior. This family is absolutely terrorized by inherited violence: traditions of psychological and physical abuse. But what sustains the tradition? In “Getting Ready for the Heartache to Come or A Body Intercepting Light,” the speaker describes the young boys in her family as “ghost-children wandering the streets / of every generation […] / flexing in photo albums, toys in the curio / lights, guns and flasks / carved with initials.” These ghost-children seem, at least to their mothers, predisposed to a violence that tethers each of them to their unhappy fates:
Bodies aimed when they leave
like bullets or planes, rarely become letters,
tulips, fireworks, any welcome opening,
rarely live as good, as free, as long
as we hope. The women enduring this
must become: saints or blameworthy,
miracles or memories.
The poem feels mournful, elegiac, the “half-sung ballad” of grief that mothers are left to sing, alone, after losing their sons to their inevitable unravelling. It’s a tender, wrenching poem that provides a needed counterpoint to the family presented in “Domestic.”
The problem, though, is that this interpretation of “Getting Ready for the Heartache to Come […]” likely does not do it full justice. The poem ends on a line from the song “Standing in the Shadows of Love” by the Four Tops. I hadn’t heart the song before and, curious to see how a Motown tune could have influenced Bingham-Risher’s elegy, I pulled it up on Spotify. I was startled by Levi Stubbs’ gritty vocals and feverish delivery. Sounding as if he were on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he insists: “Now don’t your conscience kind of bother you? How can you watch me cry after all I done for you? Hold on a minute –.” Stubbs’s voice subverted my initial reading of the poem completely as I realized that these mothers aren’t blameless, at least not entirely. Their song, when heard in Stubbs’ voice, is as much an elegy as it is an attempt at absolution from responsibility. This poem, regardless of how you read it, is as an accurate reflection of the complexities, contradictions, and agonies of familial love as I’ve ever read.
Edward Hirsch wrote that “true poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” Bingham-Risher lives up to the demands this definition of poetry places on the writer: Starlight & Error does not hedge or prevaricate. The polarities of love and violence, forgiveness and abuse must coexist if we are born from and “living in the same dirt.” That the “body will rise in spite of itself” is a true blessing.
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Lisa Grgas is the Associate Poetry Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Luna Luna Magazine, Fratcal, Web Del Sol, and elsewhere. She also reviews poetry for Tin House Magazine in Portland, Oregon.