Rebecca Hazelton. Vow. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013. 73 pp. $15.95, paper.
Rebecca Hazelton’s second poetry collection, Vow, is a testament to the cyclical nature of everything. Though the title implies an ending of one life and the beginning of another, when Hazelton says, “Morning and all is forgotten,” she is lying to us. These poems are very much preoccupied with a revolving history, with modern-day mythology reborn from the ancients, with looking back on relationships and seeing patterns everywhere.
Rather than dividing the book into sections, Hazelton utilizes recurring titles and subjects. She has several Books: “Book of Memory,” “Book of Janus,” “Book of the Wild,” “Book of Denial,” among others. There are also several personas: Elise, who behaves much more like an omnipresent Muse than a typical poetic persona, and Fox and Rabbit, whose intimate predator-prey relationship is closely dissected, the organs then pinned for us to examine. “When I cut off your head / I feel better, / when my hands are inside you, / it’s warm,” Hazelton says in “Fox Dresses Rabbit.” Through these interwoven titles and subjects, we begin to discern a narrative arc. Much like undressing a lover, we slowly uncover the pulsing story that fueled these poetic outbursts. The most revealing poems in this set are “On First Sleeping With Elise in the Presence of My Ex-Husband,” “Fox Assesses Rabbit’s Damage,” and the titular “Vow”: a love triangle, a withered marriage that leads inevitably to divorce, a demented suburbia. No one gets out alive in this world.
Hazelton rips out the raw insides of domestic life and holds them out for us to find omens in, like animal entrails or tea leaves. “Vow” in particular takes a scathing stance on marriage; by the time the couple in her poem are standing at the altar, “They sw[ear] to uphold the bonds / and the principles / and the yelling. / They sw[ear] to oral sex.” She works in their deterioration so quietly that by the time we reach the end, we find ourselves rejecting “the standard narration” just as much as she does. She is at her funniest in her moments of rebellion against the middle-class suburbs. “I am a wolf, I run / to the manicured edge / of the cul de sac,” she writes in “Book of the Wild.” The suburbanites “just like to watch wolves / and see them do wolf things.” The lens she uses to focus on the ways in which a relationship naturally decays extends outward and looks slant at the world of too-small lawns and streets named after trees:
Today the radishes are colored like a girl’s mouth
and their tops wag from my bag as I walk home,
announcing, Here is a woman who loves
a good produce stand, even though I will pull them
from my refrigerator’s hydrator in three weeks, faded
[…] That night, I overhear
a woman say there should be a law against hunting
predators, how she hates the hunters who snare and shoot
wolves, for example, and I know she’s really thinking
of her two black labs
This excerpt from “Not Here to Buy the Leopard” is representative of various poignant moments in which Hazelton skillfully maneuvers between the tame and the wild, the manufactured and the natural. Her lines are shot through with animal imagery, and more than once, there is an animal skin draped on someone’s body. In “Elise Enters the House of Triumph,” Hazelton writes:
When I try to talk
about the past, it becomes a jaguar throw
your bare shoulders,
illegal plush, musky repulse
The pages of her book are canvassed with words, often (but not always) rejecting traditional line breaks and lengths in favor of manipulating white space. While this technique could read as inanely experimental or abstract, Hazelton deftly uses it to her advantage, her words taking us seamlessly through the margins of the page and surprising us at every line break. These poems read fluidly and fast-paced, a nice contrast to her slower, more conventional ones.
Though most of this book asks us to examine dichotomies, Hazelton does not sharply juxtapose any thing against another. She is gradual in her writing, and the book is most powerful when taken as a whole, not unlike a book of prose. In this way she saves us from jarring contrasts, and we instead get a sense of a balanced fluidity in this world of women and men and animals Hazelton has created. The animals, especially, embody the old and the new, the feral and the tame:
There were ponies in the fields
searching for grass in the acres of snow,
their winter coats
shaggy and Miocene
and I wondered if somewhere
there was a sugar cube for me.
Yes, I said it.
“I Love His Profile” is unafraid of tackling the wild landscape, and though one poem is titled, “The Pastoral Is Difficult,” Hazelton is once again toying with us—she moves seamlessly between the civilized, paved world and the world of free-ranging wild animals. Perhaps her most haunting union of these two is titled “Those Horses,” in which a field trip to the foggy coast leaves children and teachers beholding the swollen corpse of a horse, its mate “nuzzling its slack flank.” This moment perhaps reflects the regret in “Elise Enters The House of Triumph,” that of a friend/lover leaving just before “meth g[ives] [her] cheekbones to die for.” Retreating “into smug sobriety, the snug safety / of a circadian life,” the speaker is displaying a type of cowardice the horse mate would never even consider.
Her final poem, “Love Poem for What Wasn’t,” has a sister in the book’s beginning, “Love Poem for What Is.” Here she torques our expectations derived from these titles. “Love Poem for What Is” takes the concreteness of the words “what is” and shatters it at our feet. It is a poem about love as utter domination, as sickening excess, as emptiness all around you:
as if your tongue burst into a rash of red sequins,
as if everyone can see your stutter in the air,
a staccato love you, love you, and nothing
in the world standing in that space to receive it.
We are left shaken and warped, prepared for the way Hazelton goes on to compare love with constriction and relationships to pelted wildcats in the rest of the collection. But by the time we finish “Love Poem for What Wasn’t,” close the book, and let her last few lines smolder for a while, we reach a different conclusion. Rather than experiencing an unsatisfying drop-off from what has certainly been both an arousing and significantly depressing collection, we get an eerie sense of closure. She gives us a bald admission of real emotion that doesn’t end on a wrong note. “This is my anger at my own fear / of mercy,” she says. “This will have to do.” We suddenly see poetic anxiety rush out and feel empathy, rather than damnation, at those last lines. Vow gives us the energy to read through sensual pain and to nod our heads in acknowledgement, but to also remember it is only seasonal.