KR Reviews

On The Hatch by Joe Fletcher

Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Arts Press, 2018. 114 pages. $18.00.

The poetry of horror is often remarked upon—the poignancy of the werewolf, cursed to kill the thing he loves; Frankenstein’s monster, yearning for love, spurned by his Bride; the intimations of immortality that every vampire whispers to its victim—but horror in poetry has a long history as a gruesomely mixed bag. As a genre, it mimics that deformed child locked in the basement: exposed to the light, it’s usually more pathetic than horrifying. The problem is acute with supernatural horror, where the overwhelming influence of Gothic Romanticism shadows all, resulting mostly in poems that find themselves helplessly returning to Poe’s “ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir” without, like the narrator of “Ulalume,” realizing that’s what they’ve done. One of the ways around this is to focus on all too natural horrors, and certainly there are few more disturbing poems than Frank Bidart’s serial killer “Herbert White” or the nameless boy in Ai’s “The Kid” who murders his whole family on a whim and declares, “I’m a wind from nowhere.” But it strikes me that the returns on non-supernatural horror are rapidly diminishing as well, particularly in cinema, where the distancing power of the supernatural is cast aside for torture porn and endless, stale variations on gore that sicken more than they thrill with that old-fashioned equation of the sublime: beauty + terror.

Where then, the place of horror in poetry? Joe Fletcher’s The Hatch finds this intersection in the well-known realm of the uncanny: where the familiar is strange and the strange becomes familiar, Fletcher marshals a wealth of styles, forms, tones, and images to create a collection that indeed gets under your skin, especially on the second and third reads. Not every poem strives for terror, but every poem strives for an estrangement that destabilizes even as it coheres around a voice or idea. One pitch-perfect example, here in full, is “The Fly”:

Summer found me
and friends in a boat
with a laughing baby.

We smoked and drank
and sang, speeding
through our sunburns.

Jenny spilled Campari
on Jordan’s chest.
Life glistened.

Then I pried a dead fly
from the thoughtless
baby’s hand. I took

a breath and thought:
if not for me the baby
would’ve eaten the thing.

Its wing still quivered,
as if trying to speak
from beyond life.

I ripped the wing off
and held it to the sun.
An impulse made me

turn to what my friends
shouted after: the baby
bobbing in our wake.

One of the surest horror techniques is the intrusion of the uncanny—the sudden sense that Something is Very Wrong—into the quotidian. The assurance in the third stanza that “Life glistened” is subtly, quietly undercut in the fourth stanza’s intrusion of death with the dead fly, but even more so with the characterization of the baby as “thoughtless.” Well, of course a baby is thoughtless—but the pejorative connotation of that word rings ominously in the speaker’s mouth. By the time we get to the classic trope of cruelty in the sixth stanza, the ripping off of the fly’s wing, the reader is primed for the cold horror of the poem’s final image.

What makes the sinister twist of “The Fly” particularly pleasurable is that it isn’t typical. Throughout The Hatch, Fletcher ranges across a number of stanza shapes and line lengths, each fitted to the tone and effect the poem is aiming for, whether a deep-dive nightmarishness or a subtly discomfiting encounter with unexpected realities, as in “Transplant,” where the narrator describes losing a leg as a mysterious yet mundane part of life:

So many years preparing
for my leg to be
torn from my torso
and now this effervescent
dissolution, like a mist
thinned to nothing.
I laughed and opened my eyes
to the faces above me.

This is how I walk.

Or in the disconnected images that add up to low-level unease in several of the book’s litany poems, such as “Palmdale Area”: “The kidnapper breakfasts alone in the atrium. // A cell phone tower marks the intersection of three skies. // A monkey whispers to a monkey in red laboratory light.”

Not every poem works as well as it would like. Here and there, Fletcher’s imagery or voice strikes a note of Surrealism 101, hovering into the clichés of weirdness and rendering the poem inert, as in “Umbilicus”: “I wander / through dripping forests / of meat trees, branches / hung with marbled red cuts.” But these are the chances any writer takes when engaging the uncanny—whether an upside down metaphor is too subjective or hermetic for a reader to gain purchase comes with this strange territory.

Further, it’s clear that the most effective poems, the ones where terror flows from the text into the reader’s imagining of what’s unsaid, are the prose poems. Something about the unreal intruding into the everyday—a staple of horror—is heightened by prose and by narrative or even a vague gesture toward narrative. Nothing else in the book lingers like the fate of the student in the title poem who finds a head “bursting with hatred” buried in the earth, or the speaker in “Northwest Passage” who gets into a strange van to help quiet a crying baby that is in fact a machine: “I thought of my friend, who was coming to visit me from some distance, who would never find me, accelerating as I was in someone else’s direction.”

The poem “Wayne” is an exemplary dip into this fuzzy reality, beginning with prosaic matter-of-factness and a hint of menace: “My neighbor, Wayne, found a dog lurking near the railroad track behind Dexter Mill. Alternately languid and frenzied, the dog had disemboweled a mourning dove, trotting into the woods as Wayne approached.” The poem relates how Wayne slowly draws the dog into his orbit in images of ever escalating unease. Midway, the narrator invites Wayne over for a visit which devolves into this:

After frowning at his watch several times late in the night, he [Wayne] declared that he had better get home. I nodded, dizzy. Embracing him was like being enveloped by a bear.

I was half-reading, half-drifting off when the dog emerged from the back room. Terrified, I dropped my book. The conversation began.

While Fletcher’s range of poetic style is impressive, I suspect a collection of nothing but his poems in prose, especially an uncanny one, would be even more impressive. That said, The Hatch gives hope that horror in poetry is not a mutant locked away in some dungeon but a bat-winged beauty that can connect the reader with the shivering solution to that venerable equation: beauty plus terror equals the sublime.

Gregory Crosby
Gregory Crosby is the author of Walking Away from Explosions in Slow Motion (2018, The Operating System).