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Haukaas- Review

09-06-2011

A Leap of Faith, a Review of Elizabeth Haukaas' Leap by Olivia Everett, Connotations Press

 
Confessional poetry has essentially offered readers variations on the theme of intimate exploration. Sometimes unattractive, often tragic, always honest, it is made up of the events, thoughts, feelings of an individual’s life. That being said, readers of confessionalism know the unavoidable repetitiveness of depressing scenarios. In this respect, Elizabeth Haukaas offers little new on the subject; Haukaas knows what confessionalism is and does, how it looks and feels. But Leap is compellingly different in its self-consciousness of voice. Here there are no child-like admissions, no angry rants, political diatribes, or self-righteous proclamations. Rather these poems are written with a sure and steady hand, with resignation not anger, with acceptance not guilt.
 
Elizabeth Haukaas’ first collection is an account of life with all its ugly underpinnings. Reminiscent of eavesdropping on a friend’s conversation, these poems are also a dialogue with and to the self. In tones neither sensational, nor self-pitying the writer fully acknowledges her own complicity in various unpleasant situations. “Her Children” is a poem of heartbreak and heartbreaking elegance: “She tries out new fathers / like slippers. Asks the deaf / child to listen for rain // on the roof, the blind one / to watch for cracks in the sky.” 
 
Haukaas is, perhaps, far enough removed from the events to offer healing to readers – a healing they may not even know they seek when reading these wrenching narratives.   In “Breaking the Code of Silence: Ideology and Women’s Confessional Poetry,” Judith Harris writes, “The survivor’s irreducible presence compels us all to be witnesses, to hear the story of martyrdom and shame, and sometimes forgiveness. Confessionalism contains the positive belief in expression as liberation from the powers who would disarm the truth” (256). Taking confessional poetry at face value, Haukaas embodies the poet as survivor, embracing her obligation to tell and persevere rather than surrender.   Steadfast in the depth of her humanity, her readers may nevertheless flinch from some of the more detailed forays into the body. For instance her explanation of the way bodies are made up of deaths in “Upper East Side Dog Park, New York City” is a bold example of her theme and brazen style:
 
You realize: smoke, not cloud,
 as you breathe in the ash they carry
 
that yesterday was skin and desire,
 organs and voices,
hunger and bones,
as you swallow bits
of three thousand human beings
as you would rain.
 
Divided into three sections (Mortals, Lovers, Mothers), these poems have been stripped bare and yet remain raw with emotion. In the poignancy of life and death, it is perhaps inevitable that some of the more nuanced moments have been sacrificed. Mortals implies death, and the opening poem “Corrida” provides several devices for understanding the work to come. The poet remembers a vacation with her father, “as far from the influences of drugs and sex / As he could remove me when I was seventeen / The last summer before I got pregnant.” Readers are plunged into the visceral experience of a bullfight in Mexico City, which concludes, “My father refused to let me accept an amputated ear, / …The gesture for bravery, for not looking away.” In effect, “Corrida” makes sense of the title as it asks the reader (and poet) to Leap into life in general, Haukaas’ life in particular. 
 
By the third poem in the collection, the reader is intensely aware that Haukaas has mastered her closing lines, delivered with a certain panache often more noteworthy than the rest of the poem. However, she offers a sense of connection to the world and the words despite the intensely personal nature of the work. Because her tragedies and triumphs are so far-ranging, they will garner a measure of compassion and gain empathy from her readers. Yet while Haukaas admirably attempts a collection of wide reach, she does not necessarily plumb for depth. Harris acknowledges that “confession is a personal outcry that seeks to address a community’s consciousness by conflating the inner…realm with broader, historical realities” (259). The poems in the first section touch on disease, suicide, cremation, miscarriage and/or abortion, extinction, Auschitz, Pompeii, Darfur. Yet rather than a sincere transcendence to community consciousness, Haukaas occasionally lapses into a litany of deaths, sorrows, sins despite her ever-present motto “I cannot look away.” Though there is a certain braveness to the work, one can’t help wishing she would at least blink.
           
The second section, Lovers, acts as more of a challenge than a capitulation, a dare to love. Once again Haukaas opens with a strong poem, appropriately titled “Invitation” though it reveals itself to actually be a warning: “earn this body. // Then, maybe, / we’ll talk about love.” Love begins to seem like a casualty of life’s battleground – the result of marriages, affairs, divorces. “Marriage is an old man’s foot / Love? Just another bunion” (“Honeybees”) is a comparison that thoroughly renounces romance.   Despite that gruff dismissal, there is an aura of longing that makes the reader wonder whether the speaker protests too much? This particular section becomes sentimental in its attempt to avoid sentiment and it is quickly apparent that this is the weakest section of the book, though that may be due to the predictability of the subjects, common emotions and relationships. Suspended as it is between the elemental poems of Mortals and Mothers, there are moments when Haukaas’ sly sense of humor intrigues the reader. After all whimsy would seem necessary when facing such tragedies as these. “Drown out the Sorrowful” deftly directs four former loverson how to dress their deceased woman: “Dress me when I die in high heels. / Dress me in my merry widow. / Fasten the garters and for God’s sake / cross my ankles, cock my head.” 
 
The final section, Mothers, continues the elemental tone set in Mortals. In this final section, Elizabeth Haukaas offers the reader an opportunity to see the poet confronting the self (“The Visitor”), and briefly steps out of strict confessionalism by imagining other lives (“Dust”). Despite glimpses over her shoulder, Haukaas brings the reader to the brink and asks us to look over the edge. “Blame” reminds us again of the urgency of looking at birth, wasting effects of disease and “what matters now is now….” A subtle shift between images that stain the mind (Mortals) and moments that require restitution or retribution (Lovers), Mothers is something else, again. In “White Tiger” Haukaas narrows and adds immeasurably to the archetypal role of the mother when she writes “breath is the soul’s true container. / Not skin, not bones. // When it comes down to it, the difference between / fire and ash.” 
 
One gentle reproach would be for the gratuitous closing poem, “Bargaining with the Gods” that feels merely like a tacked on mention of forward movement. It breaks the flow of these poems and becomes apologetic rather than hopeful. One might intuit a expectant tone to the closing lines spoken to a grandchild, “latch on, little soul, dig in” that implies a work (and life) to be continued, but I certainly hope that is not the case. The bounds of confessionalism only extend so far, and most contemporary writers can only get away with one book of autobiography.
 
In the end I enjoy these poems nearly against my will for the way they resonate with vitality, because of their defiance in the face of life. Judith Harris acknowledges the role of humanity necessary for reading confessional poetry: “We read them because they impart truth…about the need to unify aspects of the self…. because they plummet through the surface, break the code of silence, and yield wisdom. These poets touch irresistible pain…. They recognize the gravity of human history that is a succession of atrocities as well as a progression of accomplishments” (267). Undoubtedly, in a generation of hard truths and remorseless manipulation, readers will garner hope from Leap’s bravery and candor.
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Works Cited
 
Harris, Judith. “Breaking the Code of Silence: Ideology and Women’s Confessional Poetry.” After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography. Ed. Kate Sontag and David Graham. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2001. 254-268.
 
Olivia Everett is currently earning an MA in Creative Writing and Multicultural Literature at East Carolina University. She has served as an Editorial Assistant for Images Literary Arts MagazineTar River Poetry and North Carolina Literary Review.


Read more about ConnotationPress.com | Book Review - Leap:poems, by Elizabeth Haukaas by connotationpress.com