A Collective Review of Vow, by Rebecca Hazelton, Told through Three Letters

hazelton-vow-400w
 
Dearest Lindsay & Rebekah,
 
Much of this letter is about the experience of the book, my experience of reading, and also a caveat that I wrote to the book and read it at various different times, stopping and restarting, so I can’t promise this letter is in “real time.” That said, this is my .75 to second time reading this collection, and it is now October and I am drinking an Oktoberfest (Left Hand Brewing). When I started reading Vow, it was July-ish and I had just been dumped. I would take the manuscript up to the reservoir above town, and somehow location and seasons of my reading also placed my memory in the poems. I’m still going through all that, as if a heartbreak has an endpoint and it’s something you pass through with a start and endpoint, as if this is how time works. If it was a thing to pass through it’s made of a dense material and the visibility sucks. But re-reading some of the Hazelton poems reinforces certain first reactions and creates new echoes as well. Time is really the problem with me but – oh – not in these poems. Well, time is a beautiful problem here, one succumbed to in these poems, like how easily and surprisingly they step from fable to our contemporary world, without apology. Like, the poems move from a sack of hair (which somehow seems emblematic of a fairytale) to a carbon footprint (63), with such ease. 
 
Hazelton opens with the-oh-so-great poem that I basically underlined all of, because I like seeing myself in a poem (call me narcissistic) and this one to me was about the loss of another. These lines: “the pluck of banjo had a name / for that twang, and the way he called the world into notice, / that had a word, too.” (!) That the other/loved-one/lost-love holds language and not just language but the creation of language (!), in the way the banjo can only name its own sound. They are that entwined: banjo and sound. And how when that other part/part of self/love disappears, the speaker must rely on the past stories and a sense of absence. The other had become the confirmation of the speaker’s own reflection, and once the other part that created your sense of self (“In my seeing there was a blank and he filled that blank”) is gone, how can you know your own image? Which, of course, is heart breaking, to only exist in stories confirmed by others, to be disassociated with your image and history. Losing someone so intrinsic to you twists up time and language. I remember what you said, Lindsay, about the starfish that are losing their arms when I read something like that. Also, about the walruses who are huddled together on land, missing sea ice.
 
So, I think this book seems to start with a creation myth, sets up this narrative that seems like a fairytale at times. There is this creation myth of naming. We constantly create our own self-myths, right? And use stories to confirm our existence. I think of that first poem, how losing somebody is like losing a confirmation that you exist and have a reflection or a history, and how I am constantly surprised at a picture of myself, which is also why the Google Hangouts sometimes freak me out. I don’t really like looking at a mirror of myself when discussing poetry because I just see myself in the words, I guess, and that doesn’t match the image. But I can’t look away. There might be something in my teeth. I don’t know. I’ve been spending a lot of time with the first poem but I see this again (in “Book of Longing” in “I am not Atlanta, We are not Atlantis”) and all the way to the last poem with the final five lines of the book: “This is not my speaking voice, but a shiver passing through, / the birds that rise in the frame of my window… have a word for this / but my hand can’t trace the letters. / This will have to do” (79).
 
Then there’s the almost wistful acknowledgement the poems give as they swiftly walk through time periods, and this creates a steady pace to these poems. There’s all these things that place the poems in a fairytale, like forests (that disappear) and sacks of hair, but there is also meth and lipstick and the internet. Either way, we’re here/now and this is not a fable. And if we’re honest, maybe we prefer smart phones to horse-drawn carriages and sometimes to the pastoral. This is an interesting tension. (As I sit in this bar, there is a beer named “Perambulation” on tap, and girls with names like “Taylor.” Well, one girl specifically, which means that girls named Taylor are now old enough to drink.) I’ve been writing about time a lot recently. I guess I always write about it. I’m thirty-three, for example. Time is less interesting when you write it in its word: “time.” Hazelton doesn’t do that. Her poems walk between fable and reality, nostalgia in the present to make us aware of the present in which the poems exist. I guess nostalgia always exists in the present, right?
 
I’m in love with the sentiment in “Book of Longing,” when Hazelton writes, “like a comma seeking a pause” (14). It speaks of how language, even in its signifiers tells us how to read and mark time. And then maybe how the parameters of language are not enough, never enough to truly express what they are supposed to represent. I love the simplicity a line like, “There’s nothing in the world that loves you / more than the space you already take up” (23). There are the simple lines here in this book that speak of the universality of human emotion that sometimes the poems with so much “stuff” happening detract from. I guess I like the conceptual and universal rather than the concrete. I’ve said this before, but I don’t trust characters in poems. Maybe that’s not the right word – trust – maybe it comes back to me and I am too lazy to scrutinize a narrative arc and keep track of who the “I” is, who “Elise,” who “you” is, and are Elise and you the same? Sometimes this makes me want to skip the Elise poems because I can’t keep track of her and the “I” and I just like the forthrightness of admitting that “I” is I and you could be anybody. But I think also of putting “stuff” into a poem, like a tree from our discussion of Eileen Myles, and that is the really really cool thing about poetry, so now I’m not as attached to my rule of not liking characters in poems. As I read the poems again, though, and get to the end of the collection, I know I said that I’m not as drawn in by the Elise poems and I feel compelled to follow through on this impulse, but I also should stop making rules in taste. I’m rarely consistent. I really like the poem “Elise Qua Elise,” if that proves my inconsistency. Maybe you can sort that out for me? I also am really intrigued with gender themes throughout and the titles as instructive, but I’m going on and on. I could probably just sit in a line for a while and pick through it again and again.
 
Joanna
 
 
***
 
 
Dear Rebekah & Joanna,
  
I haven’t really been able to write anything recently. I’ve been reading a lot, and I’ll jot notes down once in a while, but my brain seems to shut off when I try to get anything on paper or typed out. It’s been a strange, hard six months, and I’ve tried to write this letter three distinct times since October. I’ve always been better at assembling than generating stuff, which is probably why I make sandwiches for almost every meal, and I have a tendency to edit the same pieces over and over again rather than try to come up with something new. I’m going to finish this letter today, but it’s going to have to be a patchwork of the earlier attempts to write it. Here’s the first one, on October 30:
  
“Dear Rebekah:
 
Joanna wrote (such an amazing, true, eloquent letter) to me about Vow with the disclaimer that her letter wasn’t in ‘real time,’ and I suppose I should do the same: that is, I read the book about 3/4 of the way through, left it for a while (I always have a hard time reading things on a screen but feel conflicted about printing stuff out unnecessarily) and read the last quarter of the book after receiving/reading/processing Joanna’s letter, so at this point everything has been reprocessed through the lens of Joanna’s experience, which is to say that maybe this is one giant game of Telephone and we’ll have to sort through the layers of each others’ experiences reading the book at the end of all of this.
  
I’ve had various notes jotted down for a while, but right now I’m putting them all together/typing them up in a cramped middle seat of an airplane. Today is my 25th birthday and I’m flying back from a three-day trip to see my family in California after the fairly sudden death of my grandfather last Saturday night/Sunday morning. It’s been a weird couple of days, with the tides of emotion that accompany the death of a loved one. Like yesterday we spent a bunch of time doing things my grandpa loved doing, riding motorcycles and boogie boarding in the unseasonably warm Pacific, and it felt like vacation; but today I completely lost it when my grandmother signed my birthday card ‘Love Grandma and Grandpa,’ because she forgot that that’s not how she should sign things now.
  
So re-reading the poems about loss seem particularly poignant right now: the disappearances in ‘Book of Absence’ and ‘Those Horses’ are almost too much to bear. The fact that death is universal and inevitable and the cost of growing up doesn’t make it any easier. I often have a tendency to project my own shit I’m dealing with into and onto poems, which is probably why I like poetry so much in the first place, but today I’m having an even harder time separating myself from them, and treating them critically rather than like therapy. I read the line ‘That I couldn’t sing her back’ in ‘What Elise Means to Me’ and instead of actually thinking about the poem, I just think ‘yes, yes, I know what that feels like.’”
  
I wrote down the names of a bunch of other poems that I was meaning to talk about, but I ran out of emotional steam or laptop battery power, and that’s the last thing I have from October 30. On New Years’ Day, I tried to write some more, and I’ll copy that in here:
  
“It’s weird that a collection called ‘Vow’ just keeps reminding me of impermanence. Is this my own projections/crises again or something actually Hazeltonian? So when Joanna mentions ‘the creation myth of naming’ — I’ve been thinking a lot about how Vow talks about narrative like it’s this malleable thing, how we can self-mythologize — because what is myth if not a way for us to conceptualize ourselves as a part of some larger story, to feel like our anonymous lives have some relevance? — which ‘Book of Mercy,’ with the Diana/Actaeon myth, and the way ‘Book of Memory’ repurposes the Genesis narrative, and the shout-outs to Helen of Troy, I think, in ‘Elise is Not Atlanta or Atalanta,’) and this idea — that the point of narrative is maybe not so much a cataloguing as a contextualizing, a way of situating ‘reality’ — seems to be pretty prevalent throughout Vow, with repeated callbacks to the meta- aspects of the poems themselves:
  
– In ‘What Elise Means to Me’: ‘the words/cover and the words real/ the real’
  
– In ‘Fox and Rabbit Go to the Movies’: ‘When you talk over the dialogue I can pretend/ you’re the lead’
  
– In ‘Book of Janus’ – ‘At least that’s how they’ll tell it/ when they tell it to others’
  
– In ‘Book of Memory’ – ‘If they say that’s how I was,/ that’s how I was.’
  
– In ‘Questions About the Wife’  – ‘although as this is your poem, we can take a bit more off’
  
Or in ‘Those Horses,’ reworking history/the reality of the past into something more palatable: ‘but the teachers didn’t say that,/ they said the horses were beautiful and the horses were a /foreign invader,’ deliberately positioning ‘the horses’ vs the real villains of the story.
  
I like this sentiment, maybe because I’m dealing with a mini-crisis of my own, which I’m painfully aware has everything to do with privilege and having the luxury of choosing something I want to be doing vs. sticking with where I am as a matter of survival; that is, working in a job/environment/industry I hate and daydreaming about all the jobs I’d rather be doing. Like the other day at a party I told someone I was a celebrity ghostwriter because a) there’s no way they can fact-check me on that and b) anything seemed more appealing than telling this casual acquaintance that I work in a doctor’s office doing part-time grunt work.
  
But I’ll talk about the Elise poems too, because, like Joanna, I find myself strangely repelled by them — maybe because parsing the relationship between Hazelton/the narrator and Elise seems like a task I just don’t want to deal with, since it feels so intensely biographical. The universality of Hazelton’s other poems seems minimized with the Elise ones; although the fable is her own, it feels like the reader is supposed to engage with it in the same way as the Fox/Rabbit poems, but without the cultural handholds to grasp onto. And although I’m totally guilty of this in my own writing, keeping track of the you/she/I can feel so pointless. At a certain point, they all feel like the same person — and maybe, as Joanna pointed out, they all are.”
  
It was hard to go back to Vow over the past few months, because the losses/anticipation of losses kept adding up, in different ways — my dog dying, a weird breakup, my father’s cancer recurrence, and the realization that this one might finally be it. So now I’m realizing this is a lot less about the poems and more about why I’ve been off the radar, but I’ll try to circle back to “Vow.” This third, or fourth, or nth time around, I’m not fixated so much on the loss. Instead, I’m grabbing onto these paragraphs from “Book of Water:”
  
Let us recognize
          how in the moment against the precipice
there is respite and respiration,
  
how when I ask for release
          from the bondage
I’ve asked for,
     to be applauded
          from this island at last,
  
order descends
          again
like a heavy cloak
          over an old man’s shoulders.
  
And at the risk of once again running out of steam and leaving this for another three months, I’ll pass it along. To repeat Hazelton’s last lines, this will have to do.
  
Lindsay
 
 
***
 
 
Dear Lindsay & Joanna,
  
I’m coming back to Vow around a year after reading it for the first time. Which is interesting because of the awareness of poems, images, moods and impressions that have stuck with me from the collection. I’ve also re-read the emails from Lindsay and Joanna, and so like Lindsay mentions, I’m filtering my reading through their readings.
  
Recently, I quit my job and finished my master’s degree in library science. I had been longing for quite some time to slow life down – feeling like two small children, a demanding job, and graduate school was way too much, that I wasn’t doing anything well. Now that I’m mostly at home with my children and working very part-time at the library, I feel a loss of identity that I didn’t quite expect. So, this time around when I read Vow, I was struck by the tension Hazelton creates between the domestic and the wild, and (as has been mentioned) the fable and the real. Also, how our relationships with and around people tend to create and erase our identities, whether or not we want them to.
  
I feel this last sentiment in the first poem, especially, which Joanna discussed in her letter. It is so haunting, so filled with the empty space that definition inserts into our lives. These lines in particular:
  
There are no photographs of this time and I can only go off what others tell me:
  
If they say that’s how I was, that’s how I was.
I have no words for the one in the mirror
who apes me every morning; she’s not the one I remember
imagining as a young girl.

  
There is loss here, but also definition and re-definition inside the shifting of relationships and the dissolution of a marriage.  I don’t think your observation that a “collection called Vow keeps reminding me of impermanence,” is strange at all, Lindsay. As I read it this time around, I felt the thread of a marriage ending more keenly, and I think that many of poems are examining our desire to have things stay permanent or defined when they never do. Even our language seems to fool or betray us here.  For instance, in the poem “Vow,” Hazelton starts with the lines:
  
They were not traditionalists.
They could bear the innovations
of plot.

  
Like if anyone can claim marriage as their own, or make their own path through it/despite it, it’s these two people, who are ready for all the plot twists. But then at the end: 
They stood up and received the standard narration.
  
It’s so hard to get away from the “standard narration.” The gender roles and the ways of living that seem so obvious, so cliché, but yet, they put pressure on us, seek to define us, all the time. I recently read an article about millennials, and how most millennial couples agree on sharing basic domestic duties and chores in theory, but when it comes down to the actual completion of tasks, women are still doing most of the work, even if they work outside the home. I also went to a women’s group the other day; we had to write down encouraging things about everyone else in the group. Almost everyone wrote things about me being a mom and a wife. Which, is fair enough, that is what the majority of my time and energy is poured into these days, and it’s important. Yet, I still felt invisible, like I am only seen through a window of how I relate to other people in my life. I think Hazelton investigates these kinds of pressures in poems like “Book of the Wild:”
  
I am a wolf, I run
          to the manicured edge
of the cul de sac
of the dark housing development…
  
I am not really a wolf.

  
It’s a common theme, I suppose, to talk about the complexities of marriage, the way it can so often feel oppressive for women, like it’s quenching some wild or liberated spirit within (I’m thinking of this, too, because I recently read and listened to a discussion on the poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by Adrienne Rich). But, I think Hazelton’s poems are successful because they aren’t trying to make a wider cultural point. In them we essentially see a person struggling to resist definition while still finding a place or a way to live a life that makes sense within the context of the relationship(s) she is in, and of course, that is what we are all doing, all of the time. Hazelton wants to be wild, but she wants to be chased. She wants to dominate, even as she is being dominated by feelings she can’t control. When you reach up your hand and try to wheedle / someone else’s to hold it, that’s love / dominating you. There’s no word for loving more / than you should, just the feeling of excess, (from “Love Poem for What is”). 
  
And now I’ll say a little about those Elise poems. It’s interesting that you both found them less compelling. I think I had the opposite feeling, because I first ran across Hazelton when I found “Elise, Your Phone is Ringing” in Juked and wanted to know more about the “I” in that poem. Maybe it’s as simple as voyeurism, or wanting to know what someone else’s life is really like. Other people’s marriages, in particular, are something that I find myself wondering about. As much as marriage has a public face, most of the time you never know what’s happening between two people in their own home, how they manage the average day-to-day of life. Vow, never gives us explanations or timelines (which is a good thing). In Vow, Hazelton isn’t trying to tell us a story or connect the dots of various relationships. Instead, I think she aims to haunt us. To show us the impermanence of everything, even our most permanent language and relationships. I admire the way Hazelton weaves together the various threads in this manuscript. The Fox and Rabbit poems, the Elise poems, the Book of poems, and the less personal/biographical poems like “Signals from the Universe,” and “The Pastoral is Difficult,” they all seem to take us from big sweeping vistas to smaller, more intimate moments and details, and back again. Together, I think they show us what a tangle all of these relationships, expectations and losses can be.
 
Also I’m so haunted by the gray beach and the image at the end of “Those Horses:” look, / there’s its mate nuzzling its slack flank, its swollen belly and still neck, / that horse can’t be dead or why would its mate stay. Get up, horse, / walk away. There’s a vulnerability to many of these poems, an admission of trying too hard, being too wild, being not wild enough, or just trying to figure out how to exist more truly than as someone seen by and in relation to other people. I suppose, like Lindsay said, I’m often projecting my own shit on and into poetry, so I see myself in these poems, trying to navigate all the tangles and readjustments of selfhood and motherhood, relationships and roles. 
 
Well, my toddler just woke up from his nap, so my time to work on this is over. Sorry for the long delay in this correspondence, although, I’m happy to have lived with this collection for over a year and to see how the language has left its impressions on each of us over time.
 
Rebekah
 
 
 

Lindsay Means holds a B.A. in English from Kenyon College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Rebekah Denison Hewitt lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina, with her husband and two little boys (ages two and four). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sou’Wester, Midway Journal, and The Laurel Review.
Joanna Doxey holds an MFA in poetry from Colorado State University where she currently advises undergraduate Liberal Arts majors. Her work has been published in Yemassee, Matter Journal (Wolverine Farm Press), and CutBank Literary Journal. Her first book, :Plainspeak, WY:, is due out from Platypus Press in late 2016.