(Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2014)
More and more contemporary American poems, particularly those of younger poets, seem preoccupied with the nexus of family, self, and identity. While these topics are not inherently flawed or unworthy of exploring, they can open the door to narcissism, meandering confessionalism, and lukewarm writing. There comes a point where any poet’s memories and emotions regarding childhood and family, if not rendered with skill and dynamism, fall flat. The mother and father become props and the moment of trauma blooms with clichés. Luckily, we have Lizzie Harris’s first book, Stop Wanting, which traces the connections from self to child to parent with a deftness of language and formal inventiveness that makes such subjects vital again.
Take for example the eighth section of “Rough Chronology,” one of two multi-section compositions in the book. The daughter awakes to find herself in the loose-fitting skin of the father and then, reversing roles, imagines the father in her skin, “wrapped so tight / he can almost breathe.” The poet never breaks the literalness of imagery to create a larger symbol or metaphor. Instead, Harris allows the skin (something that any reader can contextualize) to work on the purely associative level of image. Harris resists breaking the poem’s trance for the sake of an unearned payoff for the reader, and she also wisely balances her more directly autobiographical poems with work that utilizes different voices and personas. The book’s second of four sections includes several poems featuring the character persona “Birdie.” Read as a stand-in for the poet’s own autobiographical presence, Birdie jumps between philosophy and comedy in the same poem: “Birdie’s a bore, / just ask her / how many girls live inside / their bodies anyway? / People say girls elevate the garbage. / Birdie chugs wine by a hydrant. She eggs / a neighbor’s car.” A portrait of the badly-behaved adolescent, Birdie offers refreshing distance from the more first-person oriented poems in Stop Wanting.
While “family” poems seem ubiquitous in the American poetry landscape, Harris uses not only perspective but also form to dash the reader’s expectations and break new ground. There’s a certain fearlessness in first books, and Stop Wanting proves to be no exception. The first-book-poet has not yet established any precedents for his or her work, and is not tied to previous aesthetic statements or stylistic constraints, which encourages the attentive reader to be ready for anything. As a result, Harris draws on a staggering range of forms, styles and gestures at her command. Stop Wanting includes some very straightforward, lyric-driven poems that look tame on the page. But a longer look reveals a poet unafraid to challenge syntax and its relation to image.
“Timeline” is a poem that explores the meeting of mother and father and includes the almost ghost-like voice of the yet-to-be-born daughter considering the mother: “She was passed me—like a football. / She was past me, like an anchor.” There is an urgency of image here, a playfulness in the language and syntax that borders the surreal and calls to mind early experiments of the Deep Image poets regarding the sensory and the intuitive. Harris’s reliance on simile highlights one of poetry’s most primal goals: to express via comparison, to recreate (create anew) experience via the symbols of language. The forms and shapes of the poems in Stop Wanting astound: sequences, erasures, prose poems, poems that scatter and sprawl across the page, and poems that hold to the left margin for dear life. One poem even has a haiku embedded within it.
Harris’s poetry is one of the personal, dealing with violence, abuse, the body, family, and memory. Refreshingly, Stop Wanting avoids the confessional and instead finds tension between subject and form. Harris treats both memory and emotion as raw material. This elevates her subjects from being merely autobiographical (or therapeutic) to being cosmic, symbolic, and relevant to her readers as individuals.
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Daniel Rzicznek is the author of two poetry collections, Divination Machine and Neck of the World, and three chapbooks, Nag Champa in the Rain, Vine River Hermitage, and Cloud Tablets. Also coeditor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, Rzicznek teaches writing at Bowling Green State University.