To Correct the Text of a Life: A Review of Lisa Fay Coutley’s Errata

Molly Spencer

Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015. 88 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Errata: a list of corrected errors appended to a publication. Correct: put right; from the Latin corrigere, “to make straight, amend.” Error: a mistake; the state of being wrong in conduct or judgment; from the Latin, errare, “to wander, to stray.” Append: add to the end of a document; from the Latin appendere, “to hang on.”

I’m thinking about these words while reading Lisa Fay Coutley’s debut full-length collection, Errata. I’m asking myself: What does it mean if the book is a list of corrections, of things put right? What does it mean for a book to take form as a thing appended, hung upon another text—the “text” of a lived life? I don’t have answers, but the poems of this book create a world I can live inside and be human, that is, prone to mistakes and wandering, to looking back and hanging on.

I know immediately that I’m in good hands. I know this just four words in: “Shooting Geese,” begins the first poem as title cascades into first line, “I’ll maintain, is a thing I did for love. . . .” (3). In those two words, “I’ll maintain,” the speaker signals both self-skepticism and determination. Maintain: assert something to be the case; from the Latin manu tenere, “ to hold in the hand.” Like a gun is held in the hand while shooting, or like a pen is held in the hand while writing. How different the tone would be without that “I’ll maintain”:  Shooting geese is a thing I did for love—no doubt, no complication.

And Coutley’s poems dwell in doubt and complication. These are poems about our dearest and most fraught relationships: mother and daughter, father and daughter, mother and sons, woman and lover. They are poems like “Driving Drunk, & a Dozen White Crosses,” which examines a complicated grief after a mother’s death: “When it finally comes time to sit // at the river, she’ll have to finger her throat, snap in halves / all the notes that woman sung into her—” (7). They are poems that investigate addiction with backhanded praise, like “Ode to the Bottle”: “here’s to / you, bottle, to that sailboat you carry inside: / always full of wind, always going nowhere” (6). These are the speaker’s formative stories, her shaky home ground. It’s no conventional paradise, but the speaker claims the territory of her making hard, and when she leaves, counts her losses: “some // fruit you meant to eat hums low / in the throat of every paradise / you’ve been asked to leave” (14).

One of the book’s preoccupations is trauma and its reverberations. The poem “Researchers Find Mice Pass On Trauma to Subsequent Generations” traces the legacy of abuse, as a father forces a mother’s face underwater in a bathtub: “two months after my father failed // to cinch it, her, I mastered a palpable fear / of choking” (8). Later, the speaker examines the ways she’s lived with this aftermath, and passed it on to her sons, in “Family Portrait as the Language of Disaster”:

                                                So what
if I’m testing every fragile object in my home
against the curb. I’m preparing my sons

for the relics of life. The aftermath, I know,
takes voice even in the quiet determination
of an endless walk after all the trains halt. (52)

Another of the book’s mainstays is a commitment to the speaker’s emotional truths, no matter how bleak. In “Respiration,” the poem’s abiding metaphor of family life is an undersea voyage, “a promise to neither leave nor love / one another, a fire lit in an airtight vessel / where no one can open the door” (15). “On Home,” a poem that examines the trials of mothering two growing boys, ends with this searing line: “Every day I’ve given myself reasons to stay” (19). Yet, unlike those who insist that if suffering can be transformed into art, it wasn’t for nothing, Coutley eschews any redemptive impulse: In “Patientia” the speaker traces the fragments of the girl she was, “not for the transformation but the record” (47).

These would be brave poems in the hands of any poet, but Coutley’s ability to straddle narrative and lyric with sinewy language, along with—to quote one of her poems—the “s-curves and switchbacks” of shifting syntax, gives these poems a muscular, bodied feel, reinforced by intense sound and rhythm, and images that startle us to attention: a kitchen knife; a lake “all ribs not breaking but nicked” (61); a mother as a “chinful of hairs” (5), a “husk” (42). Coutley takes the material of a life and applies the tools of craft to make every poem a lived experience for the reader. The feel of these poems in the reader’s body, then, becomes another manifestation of the collection’s grit and insistence.

And speaking of grit and insistence, throughout the book’s every gesture of return is the speaker as she navigates the tricky path of the self. Coutley creates a speaker who is at once remarkably strong and also vulnerable, and the poems of Errata allow several selves to coexist: the girl and the woman; the daughter and the mother; the lover and the loner. This complexity makes the speaker authentic and believable—someone we’re willing to go along with. With the mother who says “This, kids, is the year we’ll rewrite our history / of black ice & snow. Here, each of you hold / a wiper blade, & I’ll accelerate, eyes closed” (39). With the girl, fifteen, who to this day maintains she shot the geese for love, and who returns at the end of that first poem to “lay them in a row on shore”:

                          There, on my knees, I gripped them

each in turn & spun their bodies counterclockwise
              against the stillness of their heads,
                          just in case, just to be sure. (4)

Return: come or go back to a place; from the Latin re- “back” and tornare, “to turn.” Here is a book of poems that invites us to return with it. We do so alongside a speaker who is at once fragile and tough, self-skeptical and determined to get it right. We go in the deft hands of a poet who is committed to the power of image, language, and lyric moments, while insisting on the hard-won narrative of a life.

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