Terez-Dutton, Nicole. If One of Us Should Fall. Pittsburgh, PA: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. 88 pp. $15.95 (paper).

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Reviewed by Khadijah Queen

The traveling in Nicole Terez Dutton’s If One of Us Should Fall has less to do with wanderlust than it does with staging and restaging memories across a varied landscape. Such anti-stasis seems to destabilize the collection at first; the reader isn’t sure where the next stop will be, or what kind of emotionally charged vignette awaits. It helps to pair one’s reading with listening to The Slip, an avant-rock trio Dutton thanks in the acknowledgement section. Though the book’s title comes from one of the band’s songs by the same name, their instrumental track Driving Backwards with You (and the video for it) seems particularly apt. Somehow, the disparately located poems make more sense coupled with this soundtrack, as if they’re meant to exist in a space louder than the page. They are visual, insistent, and deeply sonic, as exemplified by the opening poem “Girl #1″:

Into the small thrum, her sternum, a Doppler

resonance, pleading its maps. Listen, I am a girl.
Here and here. Place me

in an eyeless cornfield, not noticing the screen
door thrown wide and night coming on

like horses. (1)

At its best, you can feel the language of wandering in these poems via all of the senses. They’re adrenaline-powered and passion-fueled. “Every Answer is Yes,” for example, describes an active, bodied way of being present in both still and traveling moments, fully present in the self, and with others:

And guitars burning us up, quick

as malaria, strapped into the hind bucket

of second hand Buicks, speeding

away, always, and always dumbstruck

by the drums trundled in our bones

the whole interstate home. We love

the basement band drenching us

cottoneared. We love our pomade

and polyester bodies smashing

their atoms against other bodies,

our habit of becoming massive

bumper crops of noise. Sharpened

with sweat and honeyglaze, we are

kindling, snake hips swerved to

iced Ohio hairpins, we are tucked chins

and tuned limbs set for everywhere

past curfew, past subdivision tree lawns

crackling black grackle like alarm clocks.

This blood hollers all the linking verbs

by heart, the joules inscribed within

congruent and uprising integers, the many

ways in which we are not small and not sleepy,

but born of a pure velocity. We are burning

through cassettes and frost-stunted

tulips. We love the way we carry

powerchords in our teeth and wind loops

around the block with time to kill, we love

and we love, and it doesn’t ever matter

if we get there. (4)

The verbs are powerful and tactile: “burning,” “speeding,” “drenching,” “smashing.” The images as well: “We love the way we carry / powerchords in our teeth.” With the final two lines, it’s not cliché to say that the journey matters more than the destination; here, it’s a fought-for piece of wisdom–a way of celebrating both light and shadow–that acts at the crux of a collection that honors “the many / ways in which we are not small and not sleepy, / but born of a pure velocity.”

When the collection falters in the more diaristic pieces–the prose chunks that come across in some instances as both busy and plain compared to the tighter couplets and stanzas of poems that mostly fall earlier in the collection–it seems that too-literal documentation and portraiture overtake. The moments captured combine observation and reflection, but lack surprise. A longer piece, “Things We Know About Places We’ve Been: A Brief Index of Yes, and,” is representative. Many lines present flat images and less remarkable language that hide behind opaque punctuation choices. Take the final lines from the “Jellyfish” section: “Why here? I touch your shoulder. The filth of Boston Harbor. Is as good a place as any” (70). Or consider the entirety of the “Other bodies, The shores of” section:

Our silence glitters in the sand beneath a full moon. I say Full where you say Almost. We are involved in two different arguments between cities. We claim to be speaking of the same thing. The body understands a good fit by feel, I explain, encircling the moon thumb to finger. A tongue and groove ease. Full. Almost, you said. But not quite. (68-69)

One could argue that If One of Us Should Fall shows there is value in messiness and advocates a bit more tearing down of neat structures, but while a few of the subtitles (“Front steps, A suburban epiphany of”; “Knots, Saego”) seem promising, the alphabetized objects and places recounted in the index and the italicized epiphanies at times underwhelm. However, the index is redeemed by both its ambition and gorgeous lines, like the following in the section “Continent, Notes from the end of a”: “We stand at the ocean’s crinoline skirts and watch thick swells ride up the shore, so female and runneled with salt”—feminine energy in an uncontainable state, witnessed and experienced by the speaker and companion (68).

In addition to the traveling and the music, another cohering element of the collection is the power of the feminine, in the figure of a girl—falling into the chaos and freedom of the road, loving and being loved, leaving and being left behind, gaining and losing: “a girl with a Stratocaster growling mud / and chrome into microphones” (8) and “a lump of girl in square coal interiors (a box within a box) [. . .] Oscillating and muscled thick” (75). Even as “a lump” yet fully formed, there’s something fierce about this girl and her attachment to an apparently perpetual girlhood, or at least what it represents, as opposed to the women she observes as more placid, more permanently attached to (and defined by their relationships to) men. Unlike the “pincurled wives, / wives with missing silk hose and seam lines penciled up/their slender calves” (65), she comes across unapologetically rough, untidy: “My pants drag their salt-stained scruff around town” (58). She claims her femininity as her own, refusing definition and entrapment, free as the natural world that also imbues this collection: “The ocean travels where it wants” (68).

If One of Us Should Fall resembles aged whiskey in a hole-in-the-wall jazz club almost anywhere, full of serious, mysterious players who’ve loved and lived with their whole selves, who may or may not still make music out loud, but never stop composing it in their heads: “smoky boxcar teak/ and rum; a dark Jamaican/ who won’t say a lot” (2). You can drink it down—”learn and remember / every note, to drink what burns slowly”—for a harsh, strong buzz that warms you, connects you more fully to wherever, and whoever, you are (5).

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KHADIJAH QUEEN is the author of Conduit (Akashic Books 2008) and Black Peculiar (2011), which won the Noemi Press book award for poetry and was a finalist for the Gatewood Prize at Switchback Books. Individual poems and prose appear in jubilat, Aufgabe, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Rattle, The Volta Book of Poets, Tupelo Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, Memoir, Everyman’s Pocket Library of Villanelles, Fire and Ink: A Social Action Anthology, The Force of What’s Possible and widely elsewhere. Her verse play Non-sequitur won the Leslie Scalapino Award for innovative women performance writers and will be produced by The Relationship in NYC in 2015. Her third book, Fearful Beloved, will also appear in fall 2015.