KR Reviews

On All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned by Erica Wright

Pittsburgh, PA: Black Lawrence Press, 2017. 70 pages. $15.95.

Two parts lyric, one part American Horror Story, Erica Wright’s uncanny second poetry collection is “an advertisement for despair” that contemplates our worldly and otherworldly fears. These poems take the reader on a strange and surreal journey across American highways populated with dangers and haunted by ghosts.

“Lola and the Apocalypse” introduces the book’s recurring themes of catastrophe, survival, and the sublime natural world.

     And then the floor collapses and then world.

The survivors are called hostages or will be
              if any are met. Hostages in pines, hostages in barns,

hostages in the great wide open
              that makes them feel slit, wrist to armpit, in littleness.

And that’s the first poem. Where do you go when you open with the end of the world? This stark book is an apocalypse survival handbook inhabited by wounded people struggling to understand the world’s horrors (including adolescent rejection, agoraphobia, and accidental poisoning by way of cherry pits) and aching for human connection. The poems include a look inside an abandoned doll factory, numerous deaths and disappearances, and, as one poem is titled, “Spontaneous Human Combustion” in which the tone, to quote a character from Wright’s second crime novel The Granite Moth, is “more curious than horrified”: an apt description of the response these poems evoke in the reader. Several poems are set inside cars, and even that private, encapsulated space is not safe. Not only can accident and calamity strike at any time, but we may never be able to explain a person’s disappearance:

You can’t mask the scent of sulfur
                            once it sets in the upholstery.

That’s as far as we’ve come in understanding.
                            Someone was here, and now he’s not.

Sometimes your insides wants to become
              Your outsides, and you have to tell them “No.”

In other poems, cars and bodies merge “when men were automobiles, the roads were slick with sweat.” In “American Highways in Billboard Country,” the speaker worries about choosing the wrong exit and aches for passengers in other cars while up ahead:

a tractor trailer hits the shoulder,

rights itself like a whale smacking
back into the gulf, its huge body

finding other huge bodies
somehow in the dark.

It is these moments of somehow connecting with others in the dark, “When we shift our loneliness to another hip,” and “for a moment, nothing hurts at all” that break our paralysis and indecision, get us out of bed in the morning, and inspire us to battle onward, willing our bodies to do what we need them to do. Like the speaker in “Spontaneous Human Combustion” who instructs us to tell our insides “no,” other speakers struggle to assert control over their bodies in order to survive:

Death, I will chase you in stadiums.
I will be ready when you turn

on me with your rows of eyes.
For once, my arms will swing

when I tell them to, and at their ends
will be all manner of weapon.

If, as Wallace Stevens said, “the poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully,” then All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned is a successful book. In a recent interview, Wright seemed to agree with Stevens: “I think what I really want, in an ideal world where I can write the poems I really want to write, is: you could pull up any line and get something from it, whether it’s music or meaning, and you could get some sort of reaction . . . You don’t have to understand an entire poem, you could find a line that speaks to you.”

Wright’s poetry is lyric and moving, yet it’s sometimes difficult to say what a particular poem in this collection is “about.” But that doesn’t hinder the reader’s enjoyment, because even when you can’t quite articulate exactly what a poem means, you can admire a poignant line or stunning image. Consider these lines from “Lola and the Apocalypse”: “For every pain, there is a duck with your name on it . . . geese that strike as if their bodies are lit fuses.”

But not all the poems in this collection resist our intelligence. “Truth or Dare” is a fairly conventional poem in which a woman recounts being ostracized at summer camp. The poem opens in the past tense as the speaker recalls having to scrub pots for some offense she didn’t commit, then shifts to the present tense, creating contrast and distance between herself and her “darling”: “This is how adolescence goes sometimes / unless you’re a brat, and you’re no goose, / my darling, you’re no last-picked nor nicknamed.”

The poem turns meta, discussing its intentions and revealing the speaker’s desire for security and home:

This was meant to be a love song, I can tell you now
                            that I’ve failed. It was meant to propose we build

a house, hang the rafters and the screen doors,
                            so no bats nor opossums could take us by surprise.

Though this is a poem on the familiar subject of being unpopular at camp, unusual images like “a rat nesting among keys and cassette tapes” and the warning it ends with (“You don’t want to marry me. I lose things”) put a more ominous spin on the topic and refuse to give the reader the expected redemptive ending. Children do not fare well in Wright’s neck of the woods. On the “Festival Circuit” we meet Carmen “a girl raised on raw beets / and paperback horror.” “Inventory at Thirty-Three” puts a surreal spin on childhood trauma:

. . . when we were small,

it snowed onto our backs while we slept,
and we kept this ache inside us

for show and tell. The other kids yawned
their reviews, pulled gangrene and jaundice

from their backpacks . . .

The speaker in this poem is also a survivor who yearns to build a home with someone. Wright’s language is carefully chosen to allow the possibility for, but not the certainty of, a happy ending.

so that, given the gift of lumber, we could
build ourselves a home right here

in this pavement weed tangle
no one’s bothered with for years.

True to its title, nearly all these stories end on an uncanny note that is somehow just a little off. Wright doesn’t tell the usual stories around the campfire, but evokes a mood that leaves the reader with that eerie sensation that something sinister is lurking just beyond the clearing.

The characters who inhabit and haunt these exquisite pages (there are many ghosts, “see-throughs,” “hollows,” and “the newly gone”) suffer an “endless field of injuries.” Some of these hurts are self-inflicted by those who “hurl themselves into harm repeatedly” and “must walk around with the gape,” but the most painful wound is simply loneliness. Or, as it’s described in “The Twin Nature of Wedding Guests,” a more nuanced emotion experienced by the guests “who still have the ache” on the car ride home: “And this dual longing— / to be loved, to be left alone: / There is no cure for it and never will be.”

Deborah Hauser
Deborah Hauser is the author of Ennui: From the Diagnostic and Statistical Field Guide of Feminine Disorders (Finishing Line Press). Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics, and Carve Magazine. Her book reviews have been published at Mom Egg Review and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. She leads a double life on Long Island where she works in the insurance industry.