Beth Bachmann

University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015

In Beth Bachmann’s second collection, the no man’s land between the pastoral and martial is infested with land mines. Each entry into the field of a poem might trigger an explosion. In “Open War”: “Open into apple blossom into stigma, bee, apple / into open mouth. Open war into calm above a water / unmanned.”
Familiar pastoral elements (birds, catalogs of flowers, an intimate “you”) appear alongside soldiers, black rubber, rifles. Bachmann borrows language from Donne’s aubades as easily as from close-combat field manuals. In “Bird,” the speaker asks the “you” to “build me a bower of toy soldiers, a song of gunfire.” The intimacy of bodies in love is perverted into the intimacy of bodies at war.

One might call these poems post-apocalyptic, but readers will recognize much of their own world here. The unhinged imagery works because it is both strange and terribly familiar: “Who belongs to this dead? Its leg / is confused with another leg. Toss it / in the pile for sorting. Something’s missing. / Don’t let the dog walk off with my bones. Who / put out that red bowl of water?” (“Meal”) These things have happened—are happening—and the speaker recognizes herself in them: “Look at me // the way two soldiers paint one another’s skin with wet hands until nothing is left // but the eyes.”

These poems are fragmented, brutal, blunt, with titles like “Crisis,” “Spill,” “Landscape (Hyperventilation),” “Coal,” and “Cleave.” Because of their brevity (rarely longer than twelve lines), there is no easing in or out. But, while the movement between poems is often abrupt, the book doesn’t feel disjointed. There is a remarkable consistency of voice, movement, and imagery—often to the point of claustrophobia. But this is, arguably, the book’s project: War saturates us. And if we are looking for opportunities to turn away from the real-life violence of oil fields and body bags, Bachmann reminds her readers that poetry—this poetry, at least—will not help us disengage. Even post-war, even back in an apparently peaceful domestic space, war clings: “The yard is a wasteland. Abandon the white hydrangea / to its thirst. Bleach and black / have the same root / in shine, flash, burn. Meet / your son. He’s fighting / sleep. Peace, too, / is an absence. Give me back / my war.”