Caitlin Scarano's The Hatchet & the Hammer scorches

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

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 f