Review of play dead by francine j. harris (Alice James Books, April 2016)

© 2016 Alice James Books

I would like to propose a theory as to why play dead by francine j. harris has been seemingly under-reviewed since its much-hyped April 2016 release, particularly given the caliber of journals in which many of the individual poems initially appeared (Boston Review, Poetry Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, Prairie Schooner, etc.): it’s a really hard book. And strange. I don’t intend either of these labels as criticisms. Much to the contrary, the poems are hard and strange because the subject matter is hard and strange: loss of childhood, predatory masculinities, suicidality, a mother with mental health struggles who is at times absent, fat shaming, exploring sexuality amid threats of sexual violence and misinformation about sexual health, institutionalized racism, and the ways poverty can disrupt people from caring for their bodies.

[O]ne of the most pervasive questions this collection asks is: what are the aesthetics of having been violated? And furthermore, who decides them?

As the title play dead suggests, the poems in this collection provide scrappy, cunning, and inventive methods of survival (much like an animal playing dead to avoid danger). The book is divided into three sections: “part one: startle,” “part two: blink,” and “part three: freeze,” titles which point both to the speaker’s responses to perceived threats and to the affective experience of the reader. francine j. harris’s poems often feel like an onslaught of disturbing images (i.e. a man whose wife bludgeons his head with a machete in “startle;” the speaker suggesting a former foster sister fantasize about scooping their foster father’s eyes out as a way of coping in “sister, foster;” lynched boys hanging from trees in “the cafeteria is also assembly;” and intergenerational genitals stacked on top of each other in “lights in the room”). This layering of imagery reflects the sensory overload of trauma, of trying to make sense of the ways in which people harm one another. Perhaps one of the most pervasive questions this collection asks is: what are the aesthetics of having been violated? And furthermore, who decides them?

In his advanced praise blurb on the book’s back cover, poet Ross Gay motions toward this necessary and provocative level of challenge and impenetrability in play dead: “What francine j. harris does with language — diction, syntax, the line, the image — is unlike anything I know. I’m saying, they re-imagine and re-deploy language in an almost unspeakable way.” The notion of what is unspeakable seems crucial to this collection, which speaks out of trauma, but not always directly about trauma. For instance, in “pink pigs,” which is a series that is scattered throughout the collection, the speaker responds to losing her virginity at the age of thirteen to someone who seems to be a slightly older and more experienced boy (or perhaps man). This sequence differs from many poems that deal with the subject matter of consent (and potentially statutory rape), in that it is not confessional in nature. There is no they did, I did, now look at me. I find this sequence far more disturbing than many confessional looks at adolescent trauma, which frequently try to give a narrative path through trauma or seek cathartic relief. harris’s poems do not seek such resolution; they provide sad, uncomfortable, and brutal glimpses of the many dangers young women can encounter. In “pink pigs (scent),” the first poem in the series, we are introduced to the somewhat surreal back-and-forth conversation between the tween speaker and the person having sex with her:

With this non-mimetic dialogue, we see the girl speaker asking questions that suggest curiosity and lack of knowledge about sex, such as “Does it hurt when you do it,” and the responses, which are often litanies of threatening images (“Mescaline. Ropedown. Chain.”), are the opposite of comforting in this vulnerable situation. Beyond the sexual encounter itself, there are three threads that tie this series together: 1) a border on the top and bottom of the page composed the word “girl” repeated with no spaces (i.e. girlgirlgirlgirlgirlgirl….), 2) references to the speaker and male figures as pigs or pig-like, and 3) references to the speaker’s naiveté and youth, such as “Let me go change my bloomers” (16). Although these pieces might not tell this story of violation in a linear manner, they seem to tell us how it feels to be this girl considering sex. They tell us how it feels to be silenced by the more experienced male who counters the girl’s question about if sex feels good with a sort of indictment (“Feel good around me?”). Moreover, they tell us how it feels to be simultaneously trapped and wanted in the shadow of seeing oneself as pig-like and uncertain of self-worth. “pink pigs” asks us to think of traumatic events as cumulative as opposed to sequential.

[T]he poems often defying conventions in form, grammar, and linearity, which is to say the containers of rationalism.

With the poem “in,” which is the first poem in “part one: startle,” harris opens the book by declaring: “The body starts a wind when it gets broken into” (1). Indeed, the form of this book seems to be shaped by this sort of unbridled gust that is formed within rupture — the poems often defying conventions in form, grammar, and linearity, which is to say the containers of rationalism. After this declaration, “in” continues with images that evoke a sense of unrest and a need for protection: “At night, when the leaves can’t sleep / the black bark is one eye open and the snap vine dozes with its thorn in reach” (1–2). Although the alternating left-justified couplets and tercets of the poem seem somewhat tidy to the eye upon first encounter, they hold a great deal of chaos. First of all, the twenty-or-so syllable lines are a bit ungainly, most involving multiple highly visceral and menacing images, smashed together — this lineation choice prevents us from focusing on individual threats, but rather presents the threats as one blurred and nightmarish mass.

The pronouns are another source of disorder within the poem. The opening stanza presents a violated body referred to as an “it” (1). In the second stanza a “you” is introduced (which may or may not be self-reflexive), who seems to be contemplating sex. The “you” is described as “ready to kill for a seed” — the “seed” might refer to semen given that the stanza concludes with, “God forbid it roots. puts itself alone between door and the sweat, sweet night” (3–5). The “it” being rooted between “door and sweat, sweet night” could potentially refer to the act of insemination. The third stanza introduces a “we” who doesn’t always think “in locks” (6). This “we” seems to invite intimacy: “We set up house to bring. Dim it warm / to want” (6–7). However, the concluding stanza shatters those gestures toward desire with violent imagery: “[You] hurl body into stove… / You bash blood with glass” (9–10). At the end of the last line, we are presented with a curious leap: “So mornings, she jerks to light.” This final line dramatizes a startled awakening from a dream and also points to a notion of causality between the frightening imagery earlier in the stanza and the jerk awake. I found myself unable to fully parse the relationships between the “it” body in the first stanza, the “you” in the second and fourth stanzas, the “we” in the third stanza,” and this final “she.” However, I am not convinced that the relationships among pronouns is important here in the way it might be in a deliberately linear narrative. Perhaps what is most important is how this overload of potential characters overwhelms the reader in a way that mimics the un-navigability of trauma, and also detracts the reader from foreseeing the end’s startling “jerk toward light.”

“section two: blink” confronts the quick flick of time between curiosity and horror. The first poem of the section “lights in the room” presents an almost Dr. Seuss-like image of genitals on top of genitals: “The genitals are not clear, of course, though they lay one on another, penis on top of / penis, child on top of man” (1–2). As a reader, I don’t find picturing these lines upsetting until the child appears. Before that, the scene may present the possibility of consent. I find myself trying to parse what is happening and then blink: I don’t want to understand what’s happening to the child. The passage becomes even more Seussian with lines “horn over horn and boy / over man and this is nothing you can understand without talking it through, though it is / something” (6–8) — again, I find myself wanting to look away, to not interpret. Although this piece does not appear to be a direct act of ekphrasis, it uses vulgarity in a way that is akin to much of Kara Walker’s artwork (which is also directly referenced in a later poem, “Kara, you wild.andIdontknow”). At the risk of over-simplifying, the poem aims to disrupt and disturb assumptions about power and order.

Perhaps what is most important is how this overload of potential characters overwhelms the reader in a way that mimics the un-navigability of trauma …

I would be remiss to discuss this second section without mentioning the series of “suicide note” poems toward its end. There are six of these notes presented consecutively, which seem (in a fashion similar to the “pink pig” series) to interrogate the inherited expectations of confessionalism. Instead of directly interrogating wanting to die (i.e. “Lady Lazarus” by Plath or “Wanting to Die” by Sexton), these poems look at suicide from a variety of angles: one provides instructions for a landlord on taking care of the cat after the speaker passes and one mourns the never-conceived children represented by a lover throwing away wet condoms. Perhaps we get this series all together at the end of the “blink” section because they hold a thing that the eye darts away from throughout the book’s surge of images: that the speaker does not necessarily see a path through this onslaught either.

play dead concludes with the section, “three: freeze,” in which poems pause, at times basking, within the disorderly. This section refers the most directly to outside texts, objects, and forms, including the artwork of Kara Walker and Francis Bacon, harris’s own blind translations of Horace, an unnamed Japanese porn film, violets, a magician’s performance, and an altar of Christian figures. The poems engage with other thinkers and potentially species who face inexplicable cruelties. In this section, there is a movement toward developing an ethos of survival that accepts chaos as part of the status quo. Here’s a moment in her prose poem “tatterdemalion” that shows this adjusting gaze: “I love the tangle violet. It grows anywhere. Why is this a bad thing.” Here, she questions the hierarchy of how we value flowers in terms of fragility and admires the resilience of the violets, which thrive even where they are not wanted.

francine j. harris courtesy of Poetry Foundation

The final poem of the collection, “pink pigs (trough),” provides an intriguing response to the previous “pink pigs” poems in the sequence. Here, a girl speaker considers the future: “One day when we grown, you should come and fix my electricity” (1). And, although that might not be glowing or elaborate portrait of the future the girl wants, it is a future with her in it. He asks her, “Do it hurt? Still?” This question hangs heavy under the accumulation of trauma throughout the book, but there is something very provocative about the girl speaker’s final answer to it: “Cabbage root. lady slipper. trough.” Although, beyond acknowledging the slightly vaginal shapes of lady slipper orchids and troughs, I cannot pretend to make logical sense of this answer, what seems clear is that it is a refusal of the man’s question, which is a form of power.

With play dead, francine j. harris enacts how it feels to live within a world that is harmful, particularly to children, particularly to girls, particularly to black girls, particularly to black girls whose mothers are “crazy.” The poems appear as gusts out of rupture that accumulate and scatter the unspeakable debris of trauma. The images in many of these poems swarm and disturb the horizon; they ask readers to contend with the impossibility of making sense of cruelty. With this work, harris defines a poetics that refuses to rationalize or give answers. In “sister, foster: ii,” while addressing a foster sister who remains in a house with a man who “laughs at anything // anyone wants” (5–6), the speaker imagines telling her “to dream of cooking him” because “it helps” (6–7). A biting imagination and refusal to accept the world in its deplorable terms proves to be an act of self-preservation. This might not be a book you’d want to read to your love in bed, but it is a book you might want your love to read — if you think it’s valuable to consider how to be more nurturing, less monstrous.

Harris, Francine J. Play Dead. Farmington: Alice James, 2016. Print.

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