Uttered Chaos, Laura LeHew
2016, 35 pp., $10.00
In And if the Dead Do Dream, Anita Sullivan draws the reader into her personal realm: her house, her walks in the woods, her family. She answers “Where Did You Grow Up?” and signs her “Dear Baobab” letter “Love, Anita.” Fully two-thirds of the poems in this collection are in first person. Even the handful of poems told in second person are an interior dialogue, as in “Critical Mass” where Sullivan writes,
Upon an early January afternoon/resolve to leave this house/ / you’ve stayed in far too long.
And as much as she is trying to communicate with herself and her environment, Sullivan also attempts to interpret the world’s messages back to her as a way to exercise control. Even t-shirts on a clothesline in the aptly named “Messaging” do not escape scrutiny:
And I am the one
if they have something to say
for themselves in a way we are able
And since, at length
I can discern no essentials to convey
a vacancy remains.
In these poems, mundane acts like planting seeds, twirling a leaf, and driving to the store perforate our plane of existence to reveal domains with different physical laws where trees are mobile, the sun is rigid, and the deceased drive. For example, in “Common Ground,” Sullivan says:
This time the tree steps forward
half a dimension or so, and I spill
into that framed unlidded vestibule
And in “I Petition the Leaf” she contends that
If we slipped a knife around all sunlight’s edges,
the surrounding darks
we too would know
sunlight as a shaped thing,
For Sullivan, the baobab tree is the symbol of this reversed or upside down version of reality. She dedicates three poems to the tree. “Baobab: An Elegy,” is not so much a requiem as an endorsement of an alternative and ancient way of life. The trees’ inversion causes both amusement and bewilderment in her “Dear Baobab” letter. In “Prayer of a Refugee,” the baobab shelters the refugee from not only death, but the limbo of being displaced.
These literal upendings make the poet not quite at ease in a natural setting. In her encounter with a squirrel in “The First Bridge,” her footsteps are “clumping,” and she cannot sense when the creature moves along. In contrast, the squirrel belongs there, where … everything/squirrel size down there, the stones arranged for his rummagings.
Sullivan is an intruder into the natural world, even when it is just outside her doorstep. Her poems provide a roadmap to appreciate these microcosms, even though they are unpredictable.
Death and grief also punctuate the collection. Sullivan’s notes on “A Taxonomy of Grieving” elucidate the transformative role of language in her grieving process. After her husband died, she realized that the cauldron ingredients in Macbeth are plants, not animals. She finds solace in the ability of words to have double meanings. Although it is only the fifth poem in the collection, “Taxonomy” feels like the lynchpin of the book. In a mere 16 lines, the poem culminates in the common elements of the collection: the poet as observer, the uncertain human-nature interface, finding meaning in the mundane, and processing grief.
…Mortal peril steeps the air, yet air
being fickle, frequently slackens
(Bear to Lady)
Question: How can a plant and an animal
share the same parts?
Answer: On a roof
How far I have come after you stopped!
Sliding past you on my allotted track
I ride the soft yellow
toe of frog
(I pause often, looking back).
You carry my seed.
I carry your eye.
And if the Dead Do Dream is a guidebook for a path through loss, to reconnect with our surroundings. It shows us a way to encounter the world fearlessly, even when we face the unexpected.
Reviewer Bio: Gigi Cooper is a transportation and environmental planner and writer in Portland. Her poem “Field” was an honorable mention in the spring 2013 OPA contest.