The first thing I want to tell you about Rebecca Lehmann’s book Between the Crackups is that my dog ate my copies. Not once, but twice. What I thumb through now is my third copy of the poetry collection. This is not something my dog has ever done before, so I can only conclude that, like me, my dog is savagely attracted to these poems’ animal rawness. They speak to him, and he must consume them over and over again.
A sense of horror and threat pervades these poems, which is part of what makes them so attractive. At the same time, the book has its playful moments, such as in the second section when Lehmann riffs on Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 with “My mister’s eyes are floating tubs of rum” coyly chiming with the original “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Other poems in this section include modern transpositions of the Anglo Saxon poem “Dream of the Rood” (originally published in Drunken Boat). The original “Dream” is a telling of the Christ story with heavy pagan and animistic themes, a result of the colonization of England by the Romans and the blending of imperialism, as represented through the Catholic faith, with themes from native religions, like the spiritualism of a talking tree. Lehmann’s version plays with this idea of a hybrid religion. Since the original is really about the wood used to make the cross, wood features prominently in this reimagining. Lehmann’s version, though reliant on similar motions and syntax, goes afield from the original as her poem investigates the ways that women and sexuality are regulated and controlled in Christianity. Her poem explores this theme of controlling women, and controlling sexuality, which becomes a way to control culture.
“As in my tongue on the oak tree’s trunk, on the rigid bark, feeling for devil-worms. … The Man … asked me if I was a Catholic, and I couldn’t answer yes. He waved a signal in my face, a beacon, and I shuddered to think of the loop-hole, of the compact, burning punishment. Of the way dry-rotted barn beams tremble and bend. … If, in the night, the tree stalks me, I will bear witness to its maleficent greed, to its splintered breath and carnal haste.” (“Dream of the Rood”)
Moments of language play such as these add a necessary counterpoint to an often deliciously dark book, where an angry and violent childhood mingle with beautiful lyric images and bawdy humor. “[A] hoard of children / screaming in the summer dusk” in the poem “Muster Lovely” accompany a speaker weighed down with “guilt, long and obsidian,” self defeat, and an abrupt “grown man who apologized for calling / me a finger-fuck slut when we were both thirteen.” This is the version of childhood in these poems; not a nostalgic safety, but a violent, sinister world. As Lehmann writes in another prose poem, “Bucolic Calling,” “These were the times to fear. We were already falling. And had been.” Even the children in this world are, believably, culpable. “Mom was in the gravel road crying and we laughed at her. We laughed and we laughed at her silly poor-person jacket and we laughed at her face, and at her silly tears.”
No one in this book is immune from doing harm or being harmed. In the long poem “The Factory, An Elegy in Six Parts,” we see this on a larger scale, with visions of the power held over exploited workers. The Managers are seen in alliterative moments “sharking their fists over fuck-wit fires” as the workers muse, “None of my thoughts powerful, none moved the leaf flow.” Lehmann uses lyrical images and repetition to capture the lives of these disenfranchised workers, seen stunningly in the final lines of the section, echoing an almost scriptural syntax “Memo to All Workers:” “You will not get headaches. You will not / get headaches. You will not get headaches. / You will practice reverence, and it will flood / you like coolant, like the river below the Factory, / overflowing with rain, covering your former homes.”
Though many of these poems are humorous, moments like the above from “The Factory” are what I keep coming back for, what my dog longs to devour over and over. The ugly, messy bits of life Lehmann makes beautiful, without denying their pain and destruction.