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Wherever You Go: A Lyric Collaboration with Alicia Elkort’s A Map of Every Undoing in Six Figures

Cover of A Map of Every Undoing: In the foreground: an open palm covered in script, with a gray dove perched on the thumb. An archaic planetary chart is behind them. The colors are soft, and pastel.

A Map of Every Undoing by Alicia Elkort

Stillhouse Press, 2022

126 pages, $17.00

Review by Lauren K. Carlson

Who am I to speak of beauty?
Who am I not to?

–Alicia Elkort

Figure 1.

After reading yet another poetry is dead declaration in my role as an editor and teaching artist, when in the throes of procrastination, in order to thwart despair, as a means to combat dread, when confronted with suicide, trauma, abuse systemic and personal, I attend. And in this attention I imagine, and try—or intend—or perhaps best of all—I find my way toward hope in what poetry does, amid the other work living poetry always must do:

Living poetry may (a) Tendril the young leaf (comfort, heal, exhort, pray)

…several weeks after its attachment to a wall, barrier, boundary, living poetry may (b) thicken and spirally contract, the withered branches may fall off …

May invite, lull, offend, incite…

A black and white botanical diagram illustrated by Charles Darwin. Figure A, above Figure B, is described as “Tendril, with the young leaf.” Figure B is described as “Tendril, several weeks after its attachment to the wall, with branches thickened and spirally contracted, and with the extremities developed into disks. The unattached branches have withered and dropped off.” The illustration is of Virginia Creeper, a vining pant. It is intended to trace the plant’s pattern of growth.

Figure 2. 

A good friend sends a text she knows I’ll find captivating. A link to Darwin’s diagrams of how plants grow. The drawings are newly arrived to the public domain. They depict the decidedly non-linear plots that each plant must pass through, from shoot, to stem, to bud, to flower, to fruit, to seed. Something in their movement like dancing and something in their growth like circles or spirals which are meant to, or must be, disrupted to achieve vitality. 

In other words, life (at times characterized by growth, and at times not). So much like poetry written by living poets (at times characterized by growth, and at times not).

A diagram of a plant’s (Smithia’s) hyponastic movement. The image resembles a trace-by number-puzzle. Each point on the diagram represents a moment of time. The time stamp is provided. The movement’s gesture is both vertical and spiraling, the growth decidedly non-linear.
The patterns we make as we change and are changed. The thousands of fruitful disruptions which characterize life. For instance, sensing flood the leaves reach upward. Nastic movement. Non-directional response to stimuli associated with life. The condition of being pressed upon.

Figure 3.

Elkort writes the kinds of poems which enact and diagram these so-called disruptions. The kinds of explorations which pay deep attention to, and offer the reader ‘change,’ or more precisely the ‘new patterns we make as we change,’ or the ‘change our new patterns create.’ The changes our survival necessitates, the survival our changes demand. Being pressed upon. The unnamable quality we call life.

This time Darwin has traced the outward growth of the Venus Fly trap. Like the Smithia, the stem’s growth is non-linear and irregular. There are peaks and valleys. Each point has a time stamp and date.
An infusion of raw meat traced in darkness
“She’s a crenelated leaf/ the way a girl gloves/ the red of her hands”

In this gesture, the phrases fold into themselves. The text, the patterns, change—the red, like an infusion of raw meat, traced in darkness. The reaching, and the line break, crenulation. Elkort’s Map of Undoing traces trauma, and childhood sexual abuse, yes, but also, there’s surrender and life found in the text’s formal innovations. The book is a multitude of patternmaking, and the poems impress a way. 

The image the speaker offers: a figure, a girl. Leaf, gloves. The veil between the sense and the senses, her red. Heat, the living: or the way love fits into, or onto, glove. The girl, crenulated. The leaf pressed upon. The red of her hands, a kind of membrane. What she touches she cannot touch. She folds on herself, holds, is held by, becomes, a fit like a glove, “the red of her hands.” The red in the hands is both a glove, and that which is held. It become a gesture of both/and.

Figure 4.

Language can map undoing, and in that very map is a paradox. The undoing (imagine a leaf as it grows, changes, grasps, vines) presses (maps) upon the language, the speaker, fueling her growth.

There’s a hole in my solar plexus
the size of a cannonball &
I’m bleeding out,
but the soul knows how to heal.

I write my escape,
Blood drying on page after page,
folios of fire poppies—

Who am I to speak of beauty?
Who am I not to?

Consider the shape the lines create on the page. The reverse-staircase pattern implies a journey into, rather than out of, the “hole in my solar plexus” –the general area in the torso below the sternum, a literal and figurative center. The speaker tells us “I’m bleeding out” and the phrase takes on a double meaning. There’s the standard “bleeding out” as in she is losing so much blood she’s dying, but there is also the sense that the “I” is bleeding out. This sense that individuation is bleeding out is implied by the indented “but the soul knows how to heal.” The speaker is parsing the “I” from the soul. The “I” expands, grows and undoes as implied by the line’s indentation. While the speaker bleeds out from the cannonball sized hole, she is faced with two, arguably three possibilities. The first is to “write my escape,” the “blood drying on page after page.” Here the speaker turns the blood she’s losing into “folios of fire poppies” in a Plath-like move. 

But the idea of turning one’s pain into art doesn’t push far enough. She doesn’t settle for a clichéd quick-fix of transformation. The second possibility? She goes deeper still, or returns again, to her initial indentation on the page offering two interconnected questions. Given the “scars that live/ in the skin,” she asks “who am I to speak of beauty?/ Who am I not to?”  Then there’s the third. To sit with both questions, rather than make an either/or choice. The two question marks are what make these last two lines fiercely compelling. There’s no answer for suffering to be found in this “map of undoing,” but there are many questions. The pairing is both insistent and compassionate. There’s a range of possible actions the reader or speaker may take in response, and they revolve around the  folio of fire poppies. The subtle implication is a charge to stay with the beautiful while naming the hole, “the drum-/ noise of violence expanding/ my lungs each day…”

Darwin traces the growth and flowering of a white clover. Each measurement is indicated with a time stamp. Much like the other growth patterns which have been diagramed, the plant varies its pattern of growth according to both time and light. This plant has been placed under a sky light. There is a vertical line traced in each of two images topped off with a spiral, representing the flower bud.
which seems so very much like circumnutating and epinastic movement, a movement bent downward and outward, that a single flower makes, traced on a vertical glass under a skylight—

Figure 5.

On driving all night to find the shaman who will help me &

How the title refuses closure, how healing ends with an and, and—

How poetry, alive, traces, like a plant, the conditions of being pressed up, crenellation, the downward and outward growth, how the trajectory of life spirals, non-linear, how bodies, and animals, and yes plants too, also move, how movement characterizes growth, spiraling, disrupted—

“ ‘Let it out,’ she says, ‘terror must have its day,’…”

“as if I belonged/ to something majestic…”

And what’s brilliant in this poem is the couplets and the spaces which hold and have as much to say as the language, the line breaks inviting multiple meanings:

what I never wanted

to forget, the child by the door, it never should have happened,
when he stole her light.

How the space, that gap which transforms “what I never wanted,” into “what I never wanted to forget,”—the speaker who wants to remember “it never should have happened/ when he stole her light,” by letting the terror “have its day” (as the shaman suggests, perhaps even insists) and the speaker finds space in the spaces:

& now a clearing, a quiet so dark the black sky lays out the cosmos
The final drawing traces the growth points of the common pea. At first glance it could be mistaken for a chaotic scribble. Looking closer, tracing the points marked at each time signature and observing Dawin’s meticulous chart of both time and motion, it can be understood that the plant’s growth is characterize by a spiraling pattern.
diagram showing the movement of the upper internodes of the common pea

Note: as the internodes grow, the spiral moves inward. Note: at 9: 15 pm, the internode locates the spiral’s center, 22. What begins in the daylight, spirals inward. A dark expanse, the center, a cosmos? My IOS mistakenly captions the above pea diagram “a map of a star.”

On driving all night to find the shaman who will help me &

—a map of a star…

Figure 6. (Conclusion (of sorts)).

When in the throes of procrastination, in order to thwart despair, as a means to combat dread, when confronted with suicide, trauma, abuse, systemic and personal, I attend I refuse to attend.

What’s rigourous about this book, and disclosure, I know Alicia, and have a working relationship with her, which began after I began, or began attempting this essay, catalog, mapping, collaboration—

is that I went into it wanting one thing and got another. I wanted to feel resolved and to comprehend undoing. I wanted not just a map, but a certain way.

What I found is in my own life. Unspeakable hurts. 

Mental Illness. 

Suicide.

I wanted a way to make sense, and this book, offers—not sense. I wanted to say it offers something better, but rather than better I’ll say it offers something realer, alive. The poems offer a presence, but with an unknown quality. A comfort, but uncertain. 

I turned to the book to make sense of suffering and found a fellow sufferer, human—charting, journeying.

I turned to my garden wanting beauty and honey and fragrance and found overgrowth, decay, bitter roots. What I did not want to dig up.

I am alone.
I fold to knees,

caress the water—
there are always tears,

but who has not stood
at the edge of beauty &

launched a taproot seeking rain?

I’ve dug into bitter taproots. And then, I did what I suppose the less experienced do, I called a friend. 

I read widely and deeply, I sought invention and invitation. Isn’t this what maps are for? For the next traveler who will navigate this same terrain? And isn’t a map of this undoing of coming alongside, not merely your own grief, but the grief of countless others? 

Isn’t a root, ultimately, where we reach out and touch?

Connect. It’s not only growth that’s non-linear but community. How we reach toward one another. How we map our reaching. 


Lauren K. Carlson, a white woman with blonde hair wearing a hat, neutral expression

Lauren K. Carlson (she/her) is the author of Animals I Have Killed (Comstock Review Chapbook Prize 2018). A poet and spiritual director, her work has appeared in Waxwing, Salamander Magazine, Pleiades and others. In 2022 she was awarded the Levis Stipend for her work in progress. She lives with her family in Michigan.