Lisa Summe reviews I/O by Madeleine Wattenberg

cover image for I/O by Madeleine Wattenberg

I/O by Madeleine Wattenberg 

University of Arkansas Press, 2021

96 pages, $17.95

Review by Lisa Summe

I was a really type-A kid, began college as a science major, and have always loved the math behind measuring, something that has always made sense to me, something I continue to find deeply comforting. It is no surprise, then, that I devoured Madeline Wattenberg’s I/O, an exercise in measurement and precision, not only in the lyrics that sing of science—of Margaret Cavendish’s laboratory and hot air ships and hypotheses and scalpels and osteoclasts and aphagia—but also in her craft—the language of these poems measures that which truly cannot be quantified: violence, pain, need.

I met Maddy in Cincinnati. I finished a literature MA at the University of Cincinnati in spring of 2013 and, that fall, moved to Blacksburg to get my MFA at Virginia Tech. My partner at the time was in the creative writing PhD program at UC, and Maddy began her literature MA there the fall I left, before also moving to Virginia (Fairfax) to do an MFA at George Mason. I’d come home for the summers and hang with the UC creative writers, and Maddy and I had a handful of mutual friends, ended up at the same bars in Clifton and OTR. A shame that I never got to be in workshop with her, but a real delight to have been following her work the last couple of years and to have the opportunity to read I/O, which will certainly be one of the best books I pick up this year. 

One thing I find really captivating about this collection is how the poems travel in and out of time between ancient myth and the present. The speaker in this collection spends a lot of time confiding in Io (the collection contains ten epistolary poems, all titled “Dear Io”), one of Zeus’s lovers, who he turned into a cow. The movement between time feels, somehow, seamless—in one poem the speaker is writing to Io, in the next we’re at the beach with Uncle Al, and in the next she’s talking to Io again. But it works. It works because the way the poems are ordered sets us up with a relationship to time that isn’t linear at all because myth is always working in conjunction with science and with the present, and the bouncing around between time makes, for me, another kind of myth within a myth. 

The second poem in the collection, one of my favorites, “Dear Io,” opens with “I have to decide what happens in a room” (4), setting the stage to explore consent, lack thereof, and, naturally, how men inflict violence on women in a number of ways, and how thin the line between an enthusiastic yes and a yes that is simply easier than a no can be. We absolutely can’t read this book without thinking about misogyny directed both at women and among women. When we look to myth in this collection, to Io, we have to consider Hera—that Zeus turned Io into a cow in order to protect her from Hera’s wrath. “Ars Mythos,” which first appeared in Tinderbox in 2017 and, later, in Best New Poets 2017 asserts in its first line “Like women, birds / are bad news (8),” and later: “Consider how after / Procne’s husband / rapes her sister / she serves him their son’s / flesh (8).” The ways in which women are unsafe is infinite.

We also can’t read this book, or anything for that matter, without bringing our baggage, feelings, intellectual interests, etc. to the writing or art in which we’re sitting with. Which is something really lovely about readers, I think. Lately, as I’ve been newly navigating polyamory (not at all what this book is about), I’ve become obsessed with the fact of, or, maybe, my belief in, many things being true at once (very much of what this book is about). The second letter to Io begins “Suppose I transpose the image of one life over another. In the / first life, a ship sits low in the water. In the second life, the ship / leaves the harbor without a passenger. What sound emerges / from this doubling” (7)? These questions make me feel both grounded and like I am living in a constant existential crisis. And I fucking love that. 

One thing that has always felt really existential to me is a breakup, particularly one where much of the grief you have to navigate is rooted in the crumbling of a shared domestic space. Some of my favorite poems in this collection highlight that particular kind of pain. “Poem in Which the Trojan Horse Burns Blue,” reveals the pain of the speaker being with someone she doesn’t want to be with anymore. It begins: “On the wine-darkened carpet, I’m waiting / for a new word that allows me to depart / from this room” (16). I misread word for world, which is to say that this, for me, is also a book of world making: where can we (women) really go to be safe? (Spoiler: nowhere.) I am also obsessed with mishearing and misreading things, and what it means when you do it, what it says about your mind. It goes back, I think, to many things being true at once. Misunderstanding something forces that, in a way. So I love, too, how the poem ends: “When I utter our, / you mistake it for war. So we build our ships / again, face the terrible shores of each other (16). In “The Blazing Field,” Maddy shows us sadness and heartache through a telescope, not just because the poem contains one physically and not just because the beloved is scientist, but because the speaker asks the big questions that allow us to see collapse up close: “How far did you go in the space between / our minds? Did you enter the universe’s reflection? Did you let / the ancient waves scatter to pigment in your new blue eye” (33)? Later: “We built a home in the field of swinging debris (33).” 

Maddy’s debut collection is fire, the kind capable of igniting itself: “I don’t wash my hair for ten straight years / and each day the oil drips down my back, / a just-in-case gasoline that I keep close by (16).” Among the wreckage and the debris of violence, we find a vulnerability and tenderness and it is both universal and deeply private. I’ll be pulling this book from the shelf all year. 

Lisa Summe is the author of Say It Hurts (YesYes Books, 2021). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bat City Review, Cincinnati Review, Muzzle, West Branch, and elsewhere. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.