Reviewed March 1, 2015 by Daniel Moysaenko.
In Hannah Brooks-Motl’s debut collection, The New Years, people rubberneck to glimpse “A riot of surface.” The surface is not only riotous but it also actually riots, against surface itself or what’s within. This construction situates the reader outside. In observing this riot, one doesn’t necessarily question the surface—instead, the source of the riot and what the surface envelops.
Split into three titled parts, the book slides from sparse lineation to prose blocks and diaristic narration to double-spaced lyrics. A variety of surface and form stretches into new positions. A full-justified passage traces an event’s extension into multiplicity: “I drive my Corolla down the high road; silver fields beside it; darkness ahead; oh fire behind; like niceness fastened.” Dense observation becomes nearly mythic and then opens into the facing page’s white space, declaring, “Because all warmth does welcome, let me take you in // Continuing alone this little bit // For in truth we all wish some more selfish things.” In addressing self-absorption, the speaker violates it. Warmth welcomes people into a vast landscape. And within it, limber turns satisfy.
As a reader, I’m taken in by Brooks-Motl’s range. It works in tandem with her obliqueness. Pivoting from the concrete acknowledges it, at least in periphery. Or, to swivel closer to instance, the speaker explicates what is oblique: “The murder-hole of friendship // Is above us now // Spitting reason.” One may ask, is there a hole in material above? Are we in a hole, looking up to an exit? These questions position one without, within, or somehow both. But Brooks-Motl anchors the reader and renders the metaphor sensible, writing, “you // Are above me now // And undressing.” Now the hole is a person and vice versa. For a moment, figurative language is clarified as such. The reader toggles between seated and standing persons, but the speaker disrupts this scene. She describes her entire self as an excised part, “A shivery flank // In some sun,” spotlit by an other.
In seven lines, the poem fluctuates wildly. Its opening describes a concept (“murder-hole of friendship”) while gesturing at a physical space (“above us”) and complicating perceptual norms. Consequently, the reader drifts backward into the conceptual, especially as the enormity of reason pulls one toward the intangible. But Brooks-Motl draws the reader back into the corporeal and spatial. A bedroom scene flashes. Next, the reader’s imagining focuses even closer, on a body part, only to be reconfigured through problems of identity. A “shivery flank” is a striking image, but its role as perceived placeholder for self invites higher contemplation. If visual concentration on a physicality precludes other physicalities or, better yet, the non-empirical from constituting a self, problems crop up. The reader may enter this construct before the speaker expresses, “The thing and its trouble both beautiful.” So the poem’s movements can be mapped between abstract and worldly: out, in, out, in, in, out.
The book’s fluctuation—paired with formal diversity—seems to indicate the extent of imaginative travel as well as salient issues’ reach, from philosophical to immediate, civic to personal. In particular, Brooks-Motl returns to privilege: “A man may be so discreet it is impossible / To find him in public.” She includes notions of discourse and silence here, willed silence as invisibility, and power in not being scrutinized. From the effects of male gaze on body image to “little kids playing dirty in some snow / Their road the small part of a bigger,” the speaker glides through hierarchies of power and subordination to wield trust in image and dazzling intelligence:
A strong wealth
Came over me
I could not share it
It cast me out
Comprehension, be distinct
Where we wander
And what follows
From maps of cloud
With happy sharpness
On a happy ledge.
This is a feat—to take on each object, idea, and moment no matter how threatening. This is an unselfconscious display of strength. Resiliency in the face of subjection occurs elsewhere also. “Or is it like gravel on the roadside?” the speaker asks with no referent, “Pulling through the rifts, embodied on some bus, or is it failure that I can now name its shape that I dragged? What will happen, take its note.” Where particulates caught in orbit is a failure of that larger entity, the speaker participates humbly with her surroundings—so humbly that everything happening is worthy of note. It’s sharing a note with us. Beyond hinting at an apothegm, Brooks-Motl offers an attitudinal space worthy of attention.
She manages a panorama: inclusion and marginalization, diary, density, breathable lyric, incantation, abstraction, and scene. Brooks-Motl does not favor one mode but moves beyond diaristic narration and the lyric to inhabit a richer space between. Molecular and of a conceivably limitless body, The New Years waves a hand over past and future to reveal that what shapeshifts has a core, whether inherent or imposed. Performing exegesis (or source-based interpretation) on the world, one arrives at this book; performing eisegesis (or reader-based interpretation), one arrives at this book. The first page, even, introduces the reader to a tidal tendency. The book rocks, then shimmers when you zoom out, and hums as one mass farther out.
The speaker reads Ezra Pound in her living room and conducts a dialogue with italicized quotations from Canto IV: “Not a spare disc of sunlight. There was a waiting silence I also invented. This wind is wind of the palace. Thick, his words fled from me and the snow drained down. And she went toward the window and cast her down.” This passage repositions Pound as read, integrated, and questioned. Quietude slips into slight interrogation. The she in the quotation overlaps with the speaker, since no one else seems to occupy the room. So, expanding on Pound, she throws a glitched herself down. And the speaker feels “Buried in a long dream of hiddenness, the sweep of hair across one’s eyes.” Here, hiddenness and sleep reinforce a sense of non-being or limbo to great effect. To emphasize the physical reality of such abstraction, a metaphor surfaces. A barrier of hair, despite its softness or inability to fully conceal, has consequence. The partial barriers of time, distance, et cetera similarly play with perception and epistemology. How many years need to pass before their memory is entirely plastic? How much needs to be unsaid to prove a trust in the said? The poem’s inductive movement lets us glide from “a spare disc of sunlight” to these more capacious moments.
One might notice that each untitled passage behaves like an interlude, shuttling the reader forward. But each passage possesses enough substance to stand alone. The lines, “Art my grandma made: an eagle at rest on a branch…What a spot of ruin here. And the desk I ache,” contain personal references yet veer from a person toward emotive instance. From an eagle the poem moves to ruin, from desk to ache. The reader feels impelled to afford each node its due. A tone of standing slightly apart results in this equity. Each object and thought is cradled with an evenness of voice continually cresting. I followed this momentum until its end and hoped that the book would start itself over. One finds a certainty of flux in The New Years despite its smooth tone. And one senses the presence of a brilliant, untroubled mind amidst a flurry of trouble and beauty. With ease, Brooks-Motl guides the reader through multiple avenues. And in subsequent visits, different avenues brighten and different pages crescendo and a richness unveils itself in waves.
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Daniel Moysaenko was born in Cleveland and studies in the University of Massachusetts Amherst MFA Program for Poets and Writers. He is the author of a chapbook, New Animal (H_NGM_N, 2015). Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including Columbia Poetry Review, Pleiades, and Verse Daily.