Bachmann, Beth. Do Not Rise. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2015. 72 pp. $15.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Will Byrne
“The dead we__________burn; the living we bury in our faces.”
_____~From the poem “shell”
Beth Bachmann’s 2009 collection of poems, Temper—her debut—is a fascinating book: a true-life murder mystery twisted with familial tragedy, pressed down on all sides by the dark and rich presence of a lyric interior. The facts of the case seem clear, but the lyric imagination of Temper is anything but. The second half of the book is especially frenetic and bold, full of difficult images and erratic leaps. The poems are often hard to swallow, or difficult to digest, but remain on the whole effective because of the book’s framing. “Paternoster,” the first poem of the book’s opening section, provides readers with the bare-bones of what they need to know:
I’ll start with the thing dragged up: the body of my sister.
I’ll give you the location: the tracks.
The red treble designed to mock blood, to stick into the skin: one suspect—
our father— (Temper, pg. 5)
Wherever the lyric sense of Temper goes—up to heaven, back down to hell, and the bloody earth in between—readers always have the murder of the sister to come back to—its pain, its mystery, and its legacy.
Bachmann’s newest collection, Do Not Rise, continues the poet’s interest with the interior landscapes of trauma, but the bodies have moved. Instead of train tracks, Bachmann shows rusted oil dykes, fields of dead animals and dead men, a garden filled with “a hundred hummingbird drones,” as she writes in “(army) trumpeter (flower)” (pg. 49). This is the painted interior of post traumatic stress—the fallout of our desert wars.
Of course to say it like that feels too reductive or sanitized. Whereas the contemporary American language of war reeks of agendas and politics and polemics, Bachmann has little interest in anything simple or straightforward. The collection is filled with juxtapositions and inversions, shifts so quick they feel as if Bachmann is jumping through hyperspace. Take for example the first lines from her opening poem, “Crisis”:
The air is hot and then it’s cold.
The water wants out so open
your mouth and say, snow.
[. . .]
________Watch the fire.
It wants out of the place
so it splinters like insects
out of a hole you pour light into. (pg. 3)
The vagueness of that enjambed “place” is no accident. Do Not Rise is a collection of constant movement from place to place, from the physical to the imaginative and back again. “The place” in “Crisis” might refer to a building on fire in the middle of a desert, or a box kept hidden in the back-bowels of a person’s brain. Are we in Iraq? Afghanistan? Or further away—a hundred years in the past, in Alsace-Lorraine? (Bachmann’s invocation of Wilfred Owen in the poem “Dafodil” is absolutely stunning.) Or are we home—walking barefoot in the garden of hummingbird drones?
This sort of psychic movement is made possible in part by Bachmann’s use of archetype. Instead of medical or military jargon, her language reverts to the natural and elemental: fire, wind, earth and water, with a healthy smattering of snow. Nearly every poem in the collection invokes these classical elements, and the overall effect is that the violence of Bachmann’s wars seem to come from ancient earth itself, as if the subjectivity of these poems could hardly see the world any other way. Take as an example the poem “Water”:
I didn’t know how much
it was capable of—the water________fracturing the rock, picking up the house
________and dropping it
in the middle of the bridge. (pg. 13)
Perhaps the water here is in reference to the thermonuclear power of split atoms—as in the poem “revolution” where “some clouds are all energy we do not want everyone to possess” (pg. 4)—or perhaps it is simply the blind, ubiquitous force of nature. Regardless, by the poem’s finish, the violence of nature and the violence of man have been aligned: “Bottle after/ bottle of the spring we swallowed, bag after bag of bullets” (pg. 13).
For Bachmann, the elemental world is just as cruel as the manufactured—after all, violence is a natural order, not simply a byproduct of human beings. But the idea that this might make violence more palatable, or allow for a bit of calm on the part of the reader, is never entertained or allowed. To Bachmann, the pain of the subject is the pain of the world—a world that’s been filled with pain for as long as Bachmann can imagine.
This relationship between the violence of the natural world and the violence of man is a constant theme throughout the collection, and is perhaps most interestingly shown in the way Bachmann builds up the symbol of horses. Starting with the poem “revolution”: “A horse is useful. It gets the body to battle, but what the body does once/ it gets there cannot be read by pattern” (pg. 4). These are the horses of war, the metaphoric piece of the natural world we ride into battle again and again, the innocent enablers of the natural world, the first victims of our battles. “Horse, horse horse, horse./ What are you turning/ into?” she writes in “privacy”:
Inside me you murmur so much
pain so much
suffering. What makes the horses go
or fire? (pg. 31)
Here even the line between rider and steed is muddled—the horse is categorized almost as a part of the lyric speaker. “What are you turning/ into?” the speaker asks, though they might as well turn the question on herself. What are these horses? A galloping desire? A spooked fear? Or the rumbling memories of all the places we’ve been, all the things we’ve done?
Ultimately, though, the horses are just another thing we kill, and another thing we will try to grieve. Close to the book’s finale, in the poem“@,” Bachmann writes, “Put the horse/ down./ It can no longer carry weight” (pg. 56).
The core question Do Not Rise seems to pose is how do we see the world now, after all the things we’ve been through—all the violence, guilt and grief? This is where Do Not Rise excels. Bachmann fills the later half of her book with intellectual ruminations—“God was right. We don’t need any more/ knowledge” she writes in “ante-“—and moments of great emotional calm or poetic stillness (pg. 44).
Perhaps her most calming, beautiful effort is the poem “bright one.” An imperative speaker commands the reader to “Follow the belt,” in reference to stargazing. “The bull’s bloodshot eye is back,” might be an unusual way to see Taurus in the night sky, but for this speaker seems dead on. The poem continues:
is timing, the stars where they are
in winter: sailor, solider, degrees
we chart. No desire for story, no explanation. The hunter
seen or unseen, either way, the bodies are struck
in this or that pattern. Hot stones, the horns and hooves where
we feel them. (pg. 35)
To watch the stars is to inhabit the paradox of stillness. Objects of incalculable mass, billions of miles away, seemingly frozen on a black canvas. There is a universe of life, churning away—but to the stargazer there is only a pose.
The bit of indelible that Bachmann finds here is the loss of time. When gazing at the constellations, perhaps lying in an open field at night, one might find a half-glimpse of reprieve from their pain. “No desire for story, no explanation,” she writes, and indeed it is the moments such as these, when no other calm feels possible, that Bachmann provides little answers to the questions of pain, trauma, guilt and grief that plague the survivors.
Do Not Rise is a difficult book. Unlike her first effort, Temper, it is greatly challenged by its lack of context. The title, coming from a John Donne poem (“Stay, oh sweet, and do not rise!”) does little to provide a jumping off point, and the epigraph, an Ann Carson translation of Paul Celan (“to those/ I lead my blood,”) is only moderately helpful in terms of cueing readers into tone and subject matter. Combine this with its swift leaps, and Do Not Rise is an exceptionally difficult book to enter—it takes multiple reads of many early poems to get even remotely situated—whereas Temper benefits greatly from the tensions of fiction. The earlier book has both a point of view (confessional and lyric, lodged in a single subjectivity) and plot (murder of the sister, accusation of the father), both of which are integral to the first collection’s success, and make reading even the most challenging leaps easy. Do Not Rise has neither a localized subjectivity nor a plot (not to mention a consistent geography), and so it is only after multiple readings that the poems begin to take serious shape and feel as if they have a visible trajectory and purpose. This isn’t an insignificant problem, but neither should it be considered insurmountable: the moments of stillness and depth (or the clever and funny, for that matter) that Bachmann finds in her work are well-worth looking for.
Do Not Rise reads like a beautiful shuddering. Bachmann’s poems shake in frustration towards the pain of war, and each pitch of grief can only help to herald the arrival of more pain, more loss, and more seeking. She writes in “welcome home (demobilization)”:
is an absence. Give me back
my war. (Pg. 55)
WILL BYRNE is a writer and coach living in Amherst, MA. He currently coaches Field Hockey at the University of Massachusetts. He received his MFA from American University in 2014.