By Stephen Scott Whitaker
Caitlin Scarano’s The Hatchet and the Hammer, From Ricochet editions is a stunning examination of trauma, addiction, and recovery. Told in telegraphic bursts of poesy and prose, and assembled as a kind of dossier, Scarano’s chapbook scorches.
The Hatchet and the Hammer is a recovery epic. It is not a journey of absolutes. The transformative arc is largely internal, though the medium of transformation in The Hatchet and the Hammer is the body. The body is both the record of abuse and the record of recovery, as well as the vehicle. Where the body goes the mind follows. Set up from the opening line, “I was a child, a constellation of scabs” to the thematic overture of the final page “do not love or hate your body”; the book both describes and accomplishes the spiritual/emotional work of recovering and learning how to live. “Try telling your story without the body.//You will fail.”
And the mind? Better bring a flashlight and a shotgun, as the old saying goes. For trauma a affects cognition. Physical health affects cognition. The mind? Enter poetry to describe, record, and transform cognitive-emotional trauma. Alternating between verse and prose, Hatchet gives readers a language fragmented by white space, line breaks, decorative flourishes that separate sections, and are broken by linebreak and poiesis. This is a rich tradition in poetry. Contemporary poetry gloriously sheds all responsibility to form and constructs and deconstructs concurrently. There’s an alchemical component happening here, through the form, and Scarano’s eye and ear bends toward personal/emotional change. Scarano wields poesy, prose, and telegraphic declarations to assemble a dossier of this journey.
Early on in Hatchet, appearing as part of the dossier, Scarano describes images, perhaps memories, perhaps physical photographs. “IMAGE: My father’s father attacking his wife/ with a hammer...IMAGE: My father hitting my mother/in the head where she was pinned in a red/wingback chair”. The next page includes prose adapted from the OCD Center of Los Angeles website. Stylistically alternating source documents, if you will, which include poetry, Scarano has crafted not only a memoir but also a machine that imitates the experience, putting an empathic reader through the gauntlet of maladaptive behavior. This assemblage mimics periods of normal thinking and erratic thinking, clarity, and confusion. Much later, Hatchet’s speaker declares,” “Cataloguing in order to reclaim.” Reshaping and retelling to heal and become whole.
Early on in Hatchet, Scarnano writes “You can convince him to love you/you can make him well/if you simply/find the right offering.” The “right offering”, an astonishing line that nails transactional relationships, rooted in narcissism, and in the case of Hatchet, also violence. Emotionally, much of Hatchet’s history centers around “trinities: father, lover, son” and the speaker’s relationships with said trinity. “The more people I tell the story of X and I to,/the more people reveal they have experienced something similar--a struggle/within the mind...a struggle to be perceived as well.” Hatchet not only deconstructs a toxic relationship, but it also deconstructs the concept of wellness, within its framework of lyric exposition. It pushes the truth. “One day I was washing dishes, trying to hold/the pieces of myself together. And a thought struck me/ like a fist, could all of this be happening/because of something as arbitrary as the amount of salt/ in his brain?//As if I could feed him a jar of it/and we’d wake up from this.”
As the collection flows forward, Scarnano also examines alcoholism and sexual compulsion, as well as OCD behaviors and their intersections with behaviors of the men in her past and present. She cuts herself no breaks, ”my extreme need for control that led to a loss of control.” Scarano reminds us that our best impulses are weaponized against us. The speaker’s own self-exploration dreamily merges with that of X and Y, as well as it dreamily merges with the father’s stories. Where they intersect, a knot of pain, lust, love, and chemical imbalance. Hatchet is not about binaries, rather it explores the spectrum of the human condition from the matrix of loving people who are sick and are seeking help. “My life becomes a looped reel,” Scarano writes towards the end, “ I just want to get out of my own skin.”
One of the facets that make The Hatchet and the Hammer so interesting is that besides composing a lyric that is emotionally affective and effective, Scarano is also giving us a playlist of poems that inspired and informs her verse and prose, a kind of book-length ars poetica of surviving and thriving with mental illness, engaging in conversations with Carl Phillips, Beth Bachman, & Sharon Olds, among others.
The Hatchet and the Hammer is constructed, and functions, as a dossier. For those who dig intersections between memoir, invention, and note-keeping, this chapbook will light up the synapses. Scarano pulls no punches; The Hatchet and the Hammer lays the countryside to waste.
Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the managing editor for The Broadkill Review. Whitaker is a teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, an educator, and a grant writer. His poems have appeared in Fourteen Hills, Oxford Poetry, The Scores, Crab Creek Review, & Third Wednesday, among other journals. He is the author of four chapbooks of poetry and a broadside from Broadsided Press. Mulch, his novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press in 2020.