In Proximity To Violence: Kelly Forsythe’s Perennial

Perennial, by Kelly Forsythe. Coffee House Press, 2018. Poetry, 72 pp.

as if you struck
& from the moment
the match warned us
of your burning, we couldn’t
contend. We had to bide.

(From “Moral Panic”)

In an American high school in 1999, there was no such thing as “lock down.” There were no shooter-on-campus drills, now as common as fire drills. In the two decades that followed the Columbine High School massacre, in many ways ground zero for school shootings, 229 schools have had shooting incidences — 25 last year alone. Columbine rates not even among the ten deadliest. Let that sink in, we say. It has sunk.

Last year, the tragedy at Parkland’s Majory Stoneman Douglas High School led to students vocalizing their anguish, calling out those who support the NRA’s advocacy and agenda, and shining a light on the incompetence of officials during attacks. A new focus on mental health emerged as well, resulting in “red flag” laws that have passed in some states so signs of trouble — in the case of the Parkland shooter, an awesome list that went ignored — do not so easily slip under the radar. While the statistics surrounding school gun violence are dire, the needle of prevention has moved.

Kelly Forsythe, author of Perennial (2018, Coffee House Press) is not a social critic — her job is the poet’s job: to make a poem, or as Mathew Zapruder describes it, a “little machine” that “produces glimpses of expression.” Her book provides glimpses with such rigor that together they become a surveillance. The book’s title is both a reference to the unending repetitions of violence and to the showy, jagged flower with its now-altered meaning that arrives each spring. This marriage of terror and beauty drives the collection and an interior, melodious series of poems blooms beneath.

Perennial is underpinned by primary texts and other details about of the Columbine shooting and its aftermath: two students entered the school April 20 killing 12 students and a teacher. Forsythe sets this incident against the poet’s parallel adolescence, and the collection opens to explore the anxieties of living in that proximity. The poem “Colony Collapse” matches intimate details with unsettling images; the dervish begins:

I’ve asked more than once
what the longest bone in
our body is: is it
femur, or
is it
fever, or a panic of morals
& how we choose to run
to or from them. The tether
of our cells to her cells or his:

we can’t help the connections.
We make them by falling.

An image captured outside of the school the day of the Columbine shooting

How that proximity takes poetic form is the most captivating aspect of this collection. The weave of she/he, we/our, me/you runs beneath it, creating the helix we first encounter as two births in two different towns. Strands of DNA, sometimes a murderer’s, sometimes a sister’s, serve synecdochically to show how inextricably humanity is tethered to tragedy. Is one scene a silhouette of a burial, or are we still swimming in the lake beside Pennsylvania? the speaker asks. “Requiem” tracks speaker and shooter in tandem in the Spring of 1999; here is its beginning:

We were thinking of wetting the bed,
needle phobias, nervous tics, or how tenth
grade now means smoke in the AV room —

or in the West
a young man stands in a classroom
holding a bright but exhausted
malice: all the kids are cosmic surprises

with juice boxes & flower drawings

Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez speaks at the March For Our Lives in Washington DC

As Forsythe writes into the frictions that kindle within these proximities, flowers serve as the salve for trauma, at one point bursting from a severed snake. It is not uncommon for a poem’s careful line to itself be severed by nouns like lung and artery. She sets the masculine mind against the feminine: one peacocks and points and the other folds in, doing the harder work of processing and interrogating. Magical thinking and dream states are also fertile ground for the unreal to spiral with the real. In “A poem in which I am dreaming” the speaker says, My arms and legs are stuck together, // nothing moves except my hair. / It is blonde with glue. Both of you / lie down beside me. We watch clouds / to find bear shapes.

Several poems provide the intimate perspective of onlookers and victims from the vantage point of places such as the school’s library and science lab window. These poems soar above the ground, capturing conditional worlds and its fragments. “Library Version” is dire, kinetic:

He walked on top of the table. A chair to conceal and a face. You see how under. You see us under. He was in love with. No chair, that is the secret, he flung it away. He said hey everybody. No trench coat, that is the secret, he bent down. He said hey everybody. His upside-down face, natural selection, long hair in the girls’ bathroom

Events fold and unfold expectantly while spasms of graphic chaos reach their limits often by virtue of the confines of line and stanza, furthering the tension and creating a sort of fugue state, as in “Landscape: Witness Report”:

You didn’t wear contact lenses. The witness, the stranger, the
tangible. Paperbacks are soaking wet. Goodbye, there is so much
that goes on without you. There were intense moments of palsy
after everything really began. Goodbye, there is so much.

The effect continues in poems such as “Cliff Theory.” Here, time is elastic, and Forsythe captures its mutations as it stretches like the newspaper imprint on silly putty:

Every bone is burning a cool fire,
joints like magnetic asterisks grinding
deeper, our dense axis. We are so heavy.

It is over, we two are sitting, backs pressed
to low shelves of books. I’m right behind
your long & bright arm.

Natasha Lyonne as Nadia in the Netflix series Russian Doll

Such fractured renditions and verisimilitudes reminded me of Russian Doll, a Netflix series based on the if-then construction of a video game where the loops eventually rectify the schism. In the three-dimensional world, however, the schisms are not rectified in eight episodes, and in poems like “Cliff Theory” traumas are perennial, unresolved. In the poem, “I wanted to live of course — ” in the makeup aisle of a drugstore, a mirror shatters and Forsythe fuses a young girl’s memory and trauma. The fragments, like the mirror’s shards, cannot be unified. The speaker says, I talked about mirrors again: // well, / the reflections knew. Then:

Did you see that version?

The same version I saw?
Of me, but not me — 
the warped eyeshadows

falling around us into tiny
piles of glitter ash, my hands
still sparkling the next day

This poem, as a glimpse of how a traumatic event in youth is metabolized, is striking on its own. In the context of the collection, such insidiousness stands in relief. The poem “Perennial” is its companion, brutal and honest. The flower — columbine — the book’s title and its heart, is the reminder that we have inherited trauma’s repetitions. Here again, violence and beauty mingle into a helix, indiscernible from one another:

I hit the floor heavy with thorns; crawl on my palms collecting
tiny spikes — so small my palms, tendons sharp and cut up.

Right behind, you’re grabbing my leg & pressing your cheek to
my calf & kissing. I’ll always

let this happen.

Forsythe’s poems examine the panoply of the tragedy and not the killers, but the “why” of human-perpetrated tragedy is a bone made for gnawing. In 1999, the media covered the two killers’ motives exhaustively, ignorant of its deadly effects: new shooters, some who worshiped those of Columbine, emulated them. (Today, “No Notoriety” laws, which limits reporting the killer’s name, for example, have gained slow traction.) One of the shooters wrote appallingly portentous essays, part of the source material that shows up in Perennial. “Indoor Voices” grapples with these disconnects. The student is imagined in the classroom as a hive / falling into the mouths of other students. For the teacher it is more of a gap than she can handle, / splitting the classroom into speckled, dark contusions. He presses down, and Forsythe plays with this pressure, or “rivet”:

When his essays are turned in, they said violent
in asterisks all across the page. Goddamn, has the world
ever needed a woman to be so riveting?

“We didn’t want to know,” I heard people saying about the HBO documentary about Michael Jackson the day after it had aired. Such willful ignorance is also laid bare in Julie Carr’s book 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta Press, 2009), a capacious scrutiny of the modern-day obsession with and consent to violence and its outgrowths. Where Carr catalogues, Forsythe imagines, but for many poets writing today, look to Danez Smith, Patricia Smith, Terrance Hayes, and the list grows, proximity to violence has become simply the sky we live under.

As I write this, there has been a shooting at a mosque in New Zealand that has left 50 people dead. The NRA claims that it is Muslims that terrorize our nation, a narrative that works to obscure the white, American faces of the terrorists of Columbine, Parkland, and so on. One day after this shooting, the New Zealand government called for a ban on semiautomatic weapons — almost as if it were that simple. In our country it should be that simple; it is not. It remains, as Perennial instructs, a helix of collective burdens and individual pain.