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Reviewed by:
  • Emergency Brake by Ruth Madievsky
  • Kjerstin Kauffman (bio)
Ruth Madievsky, Emergency Brake (Tavern Books, 2016), 80 pp.

Ruth Madievsky’s debut collection, Emergency Brake, offers the anxious, intense, but delightfully wry revelations of a self-styled “pharmacist-poet” living and working in L.A. Madievsky’s poems center on the body: the body as the seat of intense, even sacred feeling, and the body as a chemically manipulable collection of atoms. “I can’t stop thinking— / that it’s cold inside the body,” admits one speaker, “even inside a burning body, / and all that we love / becomes the atoms / of something else.” The unease in these pieces rarely resolves—in fact, more often than not an overwhelming despair seems only barely staved off—but Madievsky does hint at the catharsis that comes from the admission of fear, confusion and occasionally joy.

At her best, Madievsky evokes a strong sense of place and is capable of great tonal control. “Poem for Spring” stands out in its willingness to explore the range of emotions possible within a cumulative syntactical form: [End Page 619]

Mid-March in Los Angelesand the cats are in heat . . .we swap bites of macaroniand spoonfuls of cabbage soup . . .and someone has diedbut I don’t want to talkabout that here,and one of us has a coldand will give it to the otherby accident,inasmuch as two peoplethrowing each other aroundon a towel in the backyardis an accident,and the body is a pillboxand God’s apology is orgasmand the button on your jeansis as old as the universe,which is to say,sing your aria, little man.

The syntax isn’t complicated, but it is satisfying in the way that it achieves a sense of spontaneity and continuously re-grounds itself in the experienced world. It isn’t without its dark notes, of course—the suggestion of someone who has died, of pills, and of the temporariness of moods. But without ever losing its grip on ordinary details, the poem, exploiting every irony, climbs to reckless ebullience: “Make me forget / that I am both the box / and the box-cutter, / the sutures and the banana. / Your collarbone is a balcony— / let my lips be the birds.”

Most of the poems move to disclose something about the speaker which is meant to unsettle. Usually these moments are styled as self-discovery: “I am always running toward / or away from myself.” Or, “I am constantly forgetting / that my body owns me, / and not the other way around.” To reach this level of vulnerability, Madievsky plays the power of metaphor against its inadequacy. She moves quickly from one comparison to another in an attempt to transcribe a raw emotion. In the opening poem, “January,” for example, she writes that “January unpeeled inside me / like a nicotine patch.” This shifts to, “I let my body / become a bedtime story / with knights and horses / and a fire-breathing dragon,” followed shortly by, “that felt good until it didn’t / like downing more cocktails / than the number of letters / in my name.” Like Holmes’s chambered nautilus, which “as the spiral grew, / . . . left the past year’s dwelling for the new,” Madievsky creates a sense of spinning away from something even as her rendered experience of, say, a particular January becomes more discernible [End Page 620] for the reader. The forms of the poem enact what she calls “running toward / or away from” herself.

Yet the ostensible vulnerability of these pieces is their weakness as well as their strength. Madievsky’s poetic persona assumes a high degree of intimacy with the reader. She chooses a casual idiom and basic syntax (often the run-on sentence). Titles are usually single words (“Hotel,” “Cactus,” “Shadowboxing”). She refers often to the thought act (“I’m thinking;” “I guess I am asking;” “I want to tell you about the time”). Each of these elements, while boosting the effect of spontaneity and stark admission, also contributes to an almost formulaic homogeneity when the poems are read as a collection. Readers may tire of the pretense that words are being hastily (and therefore more “honestly...


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pp. 619-622
Launched on MUSE
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