Pittsburgh, PA: U of P Press, 2012. 88 pages. $15.95.
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Forget aspiring to the condition of music—Nicole Terez Dutton’s poetry achieves it. Winner of the 2011 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, If One Of Us Should Fall accompanies a touring musician across a “sprawl of club dates from coast to coast, [a] series of sad motels in pastel disrepair.” Given such a grueling itinerary, one might expect fatigue; on the contrary, these poems find vitality in the varied landscapes they traverse. Dutton’s speaker engages each world she passes through, relishing the freedoms inherent in excursion: “This is far from home, / where we fall in love with twilight, with leaving.” But if life on the road—as on stage—yields sweet melodies, it also threatens to strain one’s relationship with whatever (and whomever) remains in the rearview. Mindful of these costs and benefits (“The price of passage. The hunger to go.”), Dutton’s speaker faces a relatable struggle: how to stay connected to home while journeying onward.
Dutton’s debut collection reaches ecstatic pitch narrating the twists and turns between shows: “Sharpened / with sweat and honey glaze, we are / kindling, snake hips swerved to / iced Ohio hairpins, we are tucked chins / and tuned limbs.” Enjambed and electric, these lines embark on a joyride of contrasts: sweet and sour, taut and loose, hot and cool. This dance of body and landscape makes for sultry and lively prosody, like the work of Terrance Hayes. But whereas Hayes’s voice is penetrating in its forcefulness (e.g. “The tongue reaching down a tunnel / And the teeth wet as windows.”), Dutton sounds subtler notes. Her poems are alive to the nuanced interplay of gender and music: “Birds sing because they are male and want to say so. My nest. My ladybird. Mine.” Rather than asserting dominance, Dutton’s poetry interrogates it: her poems ask, how do people play each other? “You are / fingers run across, slide hollow / scraped up the neck, you are / practice.” Likening physical closeness to instrumentation, Dutton sensitizes us to the rougher side of intimacy—the fact that relationships can leave us raw.
Especially heart-rending are those moments when family beckons; here, the speaker’s grandfather falls ill, prompting her hasty return:
You are on the way, your body crackling
with the static of Pennsylvania electrical storms.
Cows pin down acreage with indifferent hooves
and your car is overrun with guitars,
with sad boy voices, sad leather
boys with hair drizzled down their backs,
boys pretty enough sing loose the rusty irons
through the waxen wrists of Jesus statues.
Harmonies loop and reel against bait shacks
and strip malls until Delaware falls away,
a three syllable scab lost to weather, until Virginia’s
slow farmhouses curtsey and go. Until you stop
for coffee and push the tractor trailers around the plate
with your fork. Keep your blood threaded
with sugar and tail lights blooming down the coastline
until you can fall without considering the mechanics
of impact, fall in the angle his cursive leans, fall
as if darkness can be pulled back in sheaves
and dropped into, a distance whittled by careful
instruments and determination, a thing to be held
in both hands. Fall until you can land needle clean,
until you can be streamlined, the dark name carved
into the tree of his heart.
Many different addressees populate Dutton’s collection, so it’s occasionally ambiguous to whom each “you” refers. (Dutton practically admits as much, confessing in another poem, “love / is / as specific / as I can”). In the lines above, the speaker is addressing herself, though the poem’s power hinges on certain moments of slippage; “body crackling”, “blood threaded”, and “needle clean” are visuals we might expect attached to a hospitalized senior, but instead they describe the self. In this way, the poem manifests empathy, suggesting that the granddaughter shares in her grandparent’s physical suffering. Heightening the poem’s emotional impact is the refrain of falling, a trope central to the book. Everything in this poem tumbles downward to some end: whether the losses are marginal (cows giving way to “sad leather / boys”) or infinite (“darkness . . . pulled back in sheaves / and dropped into”), Dutton maps precisely what freefall feels like, as her speaker plummets past the Mason-Dixon. In Dutton’s skillful hands, even the poem itself functions as vertical canvas; syntax strains with descent, line by line, until finally landing at “his heart”—what’s most vital.
Despite this enduring attachment to her family back home, the speaker remains committed to the frontiers of music-making. She approaches each next concert with an almost mythic faithfulness: “We will arrive / in Austin where the men wear belt buckles // the size of license plates and smile at us / like they mean it, they keep us // believing there is always somewhere else / to arrive, house lights to dim.” Arrival is often associated with lights turned on; Dutton’s speaker flips the convention on its head, romanticizing what lies ahead unseen (the next show, the next set) rather than spotlighting the here and now. Contagiously restless, she and her bandmates keep pressing onward, constantly excusing themselves out the door, “ . . . But we must be going, always.” More than simply a polite expression of farewell, this line abides as their guiding star: a dedication to stay in motion, ever rushing forward.
While Dutton’s poems cover a lot of ground quickly, they nonetheless remain attentive to the politics and history of each region they cross, “learn[ing] the ghosts in every landscape.” Her poem “Westward, Expanded Definition” testifies to how areas of America continue to breed injustice: “Police on the highway flagging down the suspicious. Convenient and aggressively vague definition of suspicious. A prison sentence without charge, without trial, without term.” Describing what she witnesses, the speaker abandons musicality for more straightforward reportage. There is no singing here. The poem also situates the reader in a broader temporal context, reminding us that this is “where men shoot at bison from the windows of passing trains, the place where they fall and fall.” As Dutton tells it, this slaughter is present tense, not past; wrongs are still being committed; victims keep falling, here and everywhere.
Possibly poetry’s most beloved voyager, Basho begins his 17th century travelogue Narrow Road to the Interior in declarative fashion: “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” If One Of Us Should Fall follows a similar maxim, yet the book also reminds us that no traveler ever leaves home completely behind. Dutton illustrates how her speaker remains connected to where she came from: “In my home seven hundred miles east / of this phone booth, you spin the one / record you like best . . . Etta James at age 23.” Love of music may be what ultimately draws the speaker far from her family, but it’s also a love she learned from them. Thus, rhythm endures to keep them close, anchoring them against the ever-present threat of falling. For, as Dutton assuredly warns us, “There is a moment bodies drop / from the orbit of each other, // the miles unravel. It takes only a second.”