Erica Dawson. The Small Blades Hurt. Evansville, Indiana: Measure Press, 2013. 66 pp. $20.00, Hardback.
Erica Dawson’s latest book whirls us like a drunken line dancer whose skillful footwork veers in and out of formal composure and into wild, playful lines and dark truths. In many ways, the book follows the narrative of her first collection, but Dawson isn’t embodying that Big-Eyed Afraid speaker anymore. Her lines possess a palpable confidence, a “tendency to lead” that comes from years of experience as a formalist writer. Dawson can swerve between lines and still keep the beat. She is as comfortable quoting Shakespeare and Whitman as she is singing every word to “Wagon Wheel” at the top of her lungs, no matter if the song’s “spokes [have] spun the road enough.” In the crown of sonnets in “New NASA Missions Rendezvous with Moon” she creates lines such as “Where there is space, there is, no doubt, a death / In the afternoon.” The bodies in The Small Blades Hurt search for those little deaths because “each mission is a tryst.”
Mary Oliver once said, “rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven.” These poems overflow with rhythm and pleasure. Yet, Dawson’s poems push us beyond reliability. They are genuinely surprising. The poems’ sudden shifts and unexpected turns of phrase are at the root of their potency. Dawson’s poems don’t feel bound to their rigid forms. Instead, Dawson uses forms to create resistance and tension in her stanzas, as in the poem “Black Matter,” when she says “All you mammas cry. Please, call / Me too American, too black.” These rhythms lull you into “body-heaven,” but their sharp turns astonish and sting.
The chorus of “I’ve half a mind to” echoes throughout The Small Blades Hurt. Dawson is constantly of two minds, somewhere between desire and rebirth. Her images bend and sizzle, rise and sing. She is as ready and willing to confront death as an afternoon experiencing la petite mort. Likewise, her surprising breaks give us everything from the disembodied voice of Al Green in “the bin / of half-off thongs” to “So I say damn the free / Water beneath the thick.” Her lines such as “Too many times. The Juliet” are rich with playful suggestion. We are further sliced by the blades of self-deprecating humor when the “Costume won’t fit [her] body” (49). These poems shirk off prim and rigid constraints only so they can let their hair down. Dawson’s visceral syllables don’t require the costume of form, but more than often they wear it well.
Part of the pleasure of reading The Small Blades Hurt is in its confident yet self-aware humor, especially about place. While her diverse depictions of the south include the mundaneness of overplayed songs, traffic jams on I-65, and layovers, Dawson’s willingness to make the best of the situation, to look for the unusual in the perfunctory, leads to moments of joy and pain, moments such as when a “Sweet cowboy said I gave him eyes / Said I was high-heeled trouble.” Dawson’s musical portrait of America and of the south contains multitudes, including cowboys and “cotton- / white conchs.” It is as gothic as it is playful and bawdy. From Mary Surratt to “Langston Hughes’ Grandma Mary” to Whitman’s “Damn brass / Reverie and all the leaves of grass / So green the small blades hurt,” this book is haunted by the pain and beauty of history. “A Poem that’s Not a Song or Set in the South” sets its sights on the Mason-Dixon line, swaying masterfully between wild syllables and tightly controlled rhymes. Her music is energetic and lustful.
As always, Dawson’s poems are filled with rich interactions with the natural world. She is “all lip, rising something / Like a right-after-a-storm river / Swelling like it just up and died.” But death to Dawson is just a place to start wanting again. Like Whitman’s nature, in which life and death are inseparable—“All goes onward and outward … and nothing collapses,”—what makes these little blades of grass so sharp are the little deaths human nature longs for: the swelter of a “Florida Funeral” where “The sky / Disguises heat in dawn’s abandoned air” or the thought that “Hanging will be a death something like classed- / up auto asphyxiation.” These poems cut at our very sense of desire. She moves us with her sharp wit, and she lifts us with her buoyant visions of the world. Dawson’s imagination sees wildness even in the monotonous strip-mall landscape. Reading this book is like knowing “Al Green is in the bush / And there’s a sidewalk sale.” The Small Blades Hurt is sharp. The lines swerve and pirouette. This book is confidently alive; it wants to be taken for a spin. Dawson may have “a tendency to lead,” but she won’t step on your toes.