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Reviewed by:
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”) given to the page.

And although Madievsky is capable of highly arresting metaphors, especially comparing external objects to the body and vice versa (“as far as I know,” she writes, “they’re still together, / still overcooking chicken and throwing firewood / in their chimney’s mouth;” or, “I heard the pills inside me / go quiet / / I heard the washing machine / trying to beat the blood out of my dress”) she sometimes relies on this tactic to the neglect of other poetic elements. She lineates mostly to achieve sharp enjambments, and leaves the power of stanza break and the musical possibilities of language largely unexplored. And the persona can be annoyingly self-deprecating:

Let’s play a game:you get to be anything you wantand I get to be something that’s not antifreeze.

It’s as though the speakers know that what they’re saying is so harsh, and that they’re implicating themselves in something so tragic, that they have to work very hard to appear unpretentious, spontaneous, funny but also a little callous.

These speakers also return again and again to sex—not so much as an element of a sustaining relationship, but as a temporary escape from anxiety. Pills, blood, condoms, and orgasmic cries serve, over and over, as the grounding details of foreboding or existential longing. It’s in the sex act that the speakers find relief, and to which they are continuously tempted to attach words like “sacred” and “holy,” though always with a wry deflation involved:

. . . what is it anyway about hearing someone you lovespeak your namethat’s like being rocked back and forth,is there anything more sacredthan that person’s mouth,how it opens like a renaissance,how it is always a metaphor for sex [End Page 621]

Sometimes sex in these poems does seem a genuine and genuinely beautiful mystery. But there is also an underlying notion here that what is sexual (what previous generations might even call “crass”) is most honest.

This isn’t unique to Madievsky. But at times it feels like writing about sexuality, for this poet, is a short cut to achieving tonal intimacy. One gets the sense that what the poem is moving to reveal to the poet is what she’s frightened of, why she has a tendency “for making loneliness into a kind of fetish,” what to do with, as one speaker says, “this choice I have never had” to exist in a body, why in relationships with other humans she treats and is treated like “barbiturates.” But she does not yet have the means to get at these sources of tension and longing except through a frank, and often abrasively offhanded, reference to a sex act.

The professed hunger for an intimacy in these pieces, coupled with their harsh tonalities, can at times be formally and thematically limiting. It often feels like the poet is trying to repress an intuitive lyricism. But not always. It’s the surprising moments of lyricism, and the sense of a genuine struggle to be more—for lack of a better word—gentle, that make these poems, in their best moments, work. In “Bobsled,” for example:

I don’t want the electrons that left his faceand landed in my backpack. I don’t want meannessto bobsled the icy bank of my thoughts.When I open, I want to be the umbrella,not the pocketknife.

This recalls something Claire Vaye Watkins wrote in her recent, provocative essay “On Pandering,” published by Tin House: “I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being ‘unflinching.’ I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.”

Emergency Brake gives us the as yet varied attempts of a poet who will no doubt achieve being both open and outspoken—a force to be reckoned with. Madievsky will have much to offer as she settles into her insightful, forcible voice. [End Page 622]

Kjerstin Kauffman

KJERSTIN KAUFFMAN teaches a poetry workshop at Hillsdale College. Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared recently in Gulf Coast, Gingerbread House, The Cresset, and The American Poetry Review. She lives in Valparaiso, IN.

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