Monday, June 15, 2020

Susannah Nevison, Lethal Theater


Leukemia vaccination on the left. Rabies
on the right. I begin to see the animals
in terms of where afflictions might appear;
ear mites and hookworms, mange or fleas or ticks,
deadly Parvo that can kill a dog in days.
At night, I sleep in the daughter’s old room,
beneath a paper cutout on the ceiling,
a teenage outline filled in with glossy parts
from magazines—the mouth is many mouths,
the arms are made of arms. When the legs
of one sick dog give out and there’s nothing
left to do, I focus on the steps we take,
prepare. As if this kind of repetition
is a form of prayer that could save
a body from itself. But since it can’t,
I take the outline of the animal
on the wall, a map of what’s inside,
the body’s glossy red. I cut the bad parts out
and rearrange them into something else:
I shape the legs into a giant mouth. I sit
and wait to hear what it will say.

Even as a third full-length collection is set to appear this month, I’m going through Lethal Theater (Mad Creek Books, 2019), Virginia poet Susannah Nevison’s second full-length poetry title, and the first work I’ve read by her. Lethal Theater is a collection of first-person meditations that almost read as a series of intimate lectures on the abstract and the concrete, articulating shades of perception and hard reality. “If I tell you my body is a mausoleum / and a needle houses ghosts, then you / should know I know them all / by name,” she writes, to open the title poem. In Lethal Theater, Nevison writes of parables and performance, on violence, trauma and solitude in an exploration on the American prison system: “If one takes the bird’s eye / view, it’s easy to see / how a field becomes / a fine-tuned system / designed to give us / exactly what we want,” she writes, to open “AT HOLMESBURG PRISON.” Hers is a swirling lyric, able to bound across distances with a wave of the line, approaching the precision of a water molecule, even as it sweeps and curls through meaning and description. Thoroughly researched, the collection is open-hearted and descriptively taut, describing just what happens when the body and soul are too far eroded. As she writes: “Like a widening pupil, the dark touches / everything, spreading its wound over / the lakes and fields you cannot see, over / dilapidated barns and rundown livestock, / where your father prepares a carcass.”

Lethal Theater is a follow-up to her debut, Teratology (Persea Books, 2015), winner of the 2014 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. I’m curious about her new title, IN THE FIELD BETWEEN US (Persea Books, 2020), although I should probably pick up a copy of her debut as well.

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