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  • What Lies Beneath
  • Judith Podell (bio)
How to Walk Away
Lisa Birman
Spuyten Duyvil
288 Page; Print, $18.00

The map is not the country. The map cannot convey the experience of being there any more than a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, or survivor guilt enable us to make the imaginative leap into a disordered mind under siege. For that, you need a poet’s touch. With radiant compassion, penetrating insight, and the off-hand elegance of a skilled practitioner, first-time novelist and poet, Lisa Birman illuminates the fragmented inner world of a soldier who has returned home from the war shattered by the experience. Trauma splits the world into before and after:

I don’t remember time before this. Or I can see the general shapes. Before the breaking into pieces. Before the concentrated gaze. There’s a looseness I remember. I miss it in the vaguest sense. Without knowing what it feels like. As if I was another person. As if every part of what I am is separating from the now.

The speaker is Otis, one of those “lucky” vets, who came home from three years in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) with no visible injuries, all damage internal and the sense that this was a mistake. “I knew my body was not my body. I knew I wasn’t meant to come back whole.” Premonition hardened, became specific, hallucinatory. “I saw my arm missing from his body,” he says of the wounded one-armed soldier he meets in the hospital while visiting a friend. There were pre-existing fault lines in Otis, obsessive-compulsive tendencies exacerbated by combat— what Otis calls “The Fives, private elaborate rituals to ward off terror.” Each letter he writes home is five hundred words long. Each forms the same shape:

Five was my year. It was when I started to recognize myself in the mirror. It was when I began to tell people who I was.

Five fingers on each hand. Everything was five beats to a bar: the words that came out of his mouth, the number of bites it took to eat a pancake, the rhythm of his walk. The number five had power. None of the rituals worked with six. “I was so much my own when I was five. And some of me stayed there.”

We don’t want Otis to walk away from Catherine, his wife, but odds favor divorce or worse. Catherine has secrets of her own; we know from the very beginning. A genealogist who maps family histories for clients, her anniversary gift to Otis was a map she’d made from his family history, her name affixed to his as though she had no history of her own, her distinct preference. There was a brother who died when she was young. Catherine hides in closets at the first sound of thunder. Their marriage is a marriage grounded in trust but also in reticence—a contract of mutual respect for each other’s secret places with no questions asked. The atmosphere around them is tense, each moment an uneasy balancing act between tact and denial. Otis hasn’t told Catherine about the unreported concussions, nor has he told about that first week in Kandahar where he saw a running man lose his legs in an explosion. He hasn’t told her about a house in Afghanistan that turned out not to be a weapons facility after all, nor has he told her about the young mother and her three children whose names he doesn’t know and wants to remember. We share Otis’s visceral sense of walls closing in, share the strain of keeping up the masquerade that he is— “fine,” “good.” Everyone—Otis’s parents as well as Catherine’s—is trying their best to move forward and not step on trip wires. Such everyday heroics are the practical face of love.

When poets turn to fiction, the results often dazzle. Birman elicits powerful effects from a pared down vocabulary, simple cadence, and streamlined sentences. Her writing is clean, economical. There is an incantory quality to it. We are meant to...


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