• Stephen Scott Whitaker

A review of Beth Bachmann's Cease


Cease

University of Pittsburgh Press

$17

Cease, Beth Bachmann’s third collection, takes a sledgehammer to the divisions between humanity. Walls are both metaphor and stylistic manifesto in this collection which bears witness, advocates, wails and calls for peace.

The book is as much a protest of Trumpism as it is a call to tear down divisions and love humanity with all its faults. Cease is angry, difficult, and soaked in blood and gasoline. Yet it is about peace, what is sacrificed and what must be sacrificed to obtain it. Framed by four poems entitled “wall”, or four movements of a single poem, if you will, Cease seeks unity through flesh, through shared emotional and physical landscapes, and through love, not to mention style (more on that later). Bachmann touches on a panoply of emotional tones and employs visceral imagery; Bachmann’s oeuvre is fleshy, rooted in the experience of the body, and Cease is no different. What makes Cease electric, mysterious and imminently re-readable is that it’s content and style reinforce each other.

Before we go into its mystery, it is best to describe Cease’s style/form. With the exceptions of the four poems entitled “wall”, the poems are bricks of prose, dense little paragraphs--if you will-- that are sharp, brittle, and stretch like a line of stones across the emotional landscape of America. Pretend it’s a flip book, and the poems form sections of wall that rise and crumble like a landscape passing by at 60 miles per hour. In contrast, the “wall” poems are not styled like bricks, rather they are broken, punched out, barely standing constructs. One can almost imagine Bachmann, sledgehammer in hand, taking out power structures. Rarely does style serve exigency so well as it does in Cease.

Beyond the style of the text, Bachmann sisters together motifs, concepts and narratives. Bachmann’s constructing here as much as she is deconstructing. Stript of punctuation, the poems offer associative leaps or cognitive dissonance or both. Cease delivers poems that take the personal, the political, the physical and collapses punctuation that divides them, and builds them together, patched here and there with a bit of pop culture or philosophy, as a unified block of poetry. In this way, Bachmann’s poems cross large conceptual and physical spaces in a block of text that is essentially a stylistic exercise in unity. The book cries for unity, at the level of its line, in its overall construction as a manuscript, as well as in its images and in its heart.

And if Bachmann’s prosody isn’t enough to excite, consider how the joy of reading Cease lies in its associative power to disrupt. Consider “shame”, below, in its entirety and in multiple ways the reader can make meaning. Note: to imitate the way the poem appears on the page, rather than replicate Penguin’s printed font, size, and spacing, I have instead inserted lines breaks--/-- and let the typed prose turn on itself, which at least imitates Bachmann’s poesy:

shame

the battle has many parts you’re it I’m it too many people too many people not/enough looking each other in the eyes before shooting cut the armor off your/ whole body without flinching or leave it to me don’t pretend you are innocent/either air I have sense enough to know I need to breathe the air didn’t you want/me to ask you a question what was it you tell me/how the whole thing one two three fours whether or not we know how to kill/ holy mercy we know how to bleed

Stript of punctuation, the reader is forced to slow down to couple images, lines and phrases. And when the reader slows down all sorts of wonderful associative accidents can occur. The eye gobbles the text. Synapses fire as the reader translates Bachmann’s work into meaning. Throw in multiple ways the text could be read, and Bachmann’s got the reader engaging in the creative process. The poet reaches through the text to shake hands with the reader, a spiritual connection, if you will.

One way to read the beats, or emotional shifts of “shame” could be:

The battle has many parts you’re it I’m it too many people too many people not/enough looking each other in the eyes before shooting cut the armor off your/ whole body without flinching or leave it to me don’t pretend you are innocent/either air I have sense enough to know I need to breathe the air didn’t you want/me to ask you a question what was it you tell me/how the whole thing one two three fours whether or not we know how to kill holy mercy we know how to bleed

But, one could also read key interior lines like this:

not/enough looking each other in the eyes before shooting cut the armor off your/ whole body without flinching

It is this rush of possibility that makes Cease so fun to read. There is joy and mystery. Consider, “moses (art of war)”:

one body emptied into another body of water another world wash your/hands son get ready the ocean blew open her body my god a door the ocean/ broke open piece by piece peace the ocean my god look at it how it rose so/slowly holy mother of bit by bit the wave blew the blood wide open moses the heart the boat the bridge burned one day another ocean

Which could also be read this way:

one body emptied into another body of water another world wash your/hands son get ready the ocean blew open her body my god a door the ocean/ broke open piece by piece peace the ocean my god look at it how it rose so/slowly holy mother of bit by bit the wave blew the blood wide open moses the heart the boat the bridge burned one day another ocean

And it doesn’t really matter which clause is married to which. It’s like that with family, friends and neighbors. Or at least it should be like that. We are all in it together, right? In “the bell daybreak” Bachmann ends the poem with “come here boat/come here body what do you love I’ll find it” a line that leaps from refugee crisis, to the physical cage of our bodies, to the speaker’s act of love, a gesture that is so simple and radical it emotionally both undercuts and sets up the very next poem, “wall” (the third of four), which begins with the personal, “on one side your memory/of me here we are again/speaking of what you are thinking should we eat...the pleasure we take in each other”. The poem, “the bell daybreak”, then moves into the soil and the speaker labors to grow food in a hot border state. The poem, for a moment, hangs hope on growing food but ends with the danger of a hammer, “we need collison ...hammer blow...bodies scatter.” Bachmann reminds us that it is through our most intimate relationships that we both cause pain and suffering, and heal pain and suffering. These beautiful, terrible moments are laid out throughout Cease, among and alongside poems rife with America’s corrosion. “<Y>ou blackened my mouth when you should’ve thrown water in my face” Bachmann begins in “sung”. A passionate riff of pastoral imagery, a storm building far off in the sky. She continues “I’d kill to kiss you” encapsulating the dangerous impulses of toxic America in the humidity of a climate jacked summer. It all matters, Bachmann says, how we treat one another, strangers, animals, earth, all. And while the poet reaches for hope, via the prosody, and the overall construction of the book, the speaker of the poem is often buried in text roughly shaped like a coffin. That’s the marvelous unity of form and function hammering home the threat of death. Cease’s maze like construction sometimes reinforces, sometimes oppresses or suffocates.

Cease’s kinetic energy engages and challenges the reader. She deconstructs America while constructing a vision of unity. Bachmann’s poems rub up against each other, a protest charged in the late hot autumn air: tear down barriers that uphold old corruption and thrive.

Stephen Scott Whitaker is a member of National Book Critics Circle and the managing editor for The Broadkill Review. His poems have appeared in Oxford Poetry, Grub Street, and Anderbo, among other journals.


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