by Erin M. Bertram
Occasionally, the world splits open, revealing small animals and rusted trucks, constellations, stray dogs—familiar things you never paid much attention, now charged beyond memory. You like some of what you see very much, but the rest of it scares you, leaves you facing doorways and watching parked cars at night. This is the mood of Alison Stine’s first book, Ohio Violence.
The book begins with an epigraph from James Wright, a master of the empathetic, narrative pastoral: “I began in Ohio,” it reads, “I still dream of home.” Though Stine wasn’t born in Ohio, she did grow up there, and like Wright she suffers the strong pull of nostalgia for the locale. It’s worth noting that the word nostalgia has its etymological roots in homecoming. As Stine tells us in “Catalogue,” “The more we tell a story // the more it becomes what we want it to be.” Perhaps, likewise, the more we return home, the more it becomes what we want it to be—though not without also becoming strange to us in the process.
And don’t we always return home in memory? In “Tiresias,” titled after the ancient blind soothsayer who lived life as a man and a woman, respectively, Stine blurs the distinction between the title character, a former lover, and the many snakes she’s tried to kill throughout her life. The poem finds the speaker making a claim firmly secured in memory, a claim that may as well be about home: “I am learning // nothing has a sex. I am learning // whomever we love, we are left this way, halved.” Many of the poems in the book weave down the page in serpentine sway, a stylistic decision that’s at times quite hypnotic.
The world of Ohio Violence is rife with grief, bewilderment, and longing, but there’s no lack of the immediate experience of living life in a physical body. It’s a world replete with wonder, populated by the strange, the sometimes glorious, and always by the true. There, you’ll find dead deer splayed in carnivalesque puppetry on the side of the road; a bat lifting itself from a towel until it becomes something more specific than itself in the sky; and a woman’s voice, in the title poem, that says
Underneath my skin
is a city. Underneath my skin
is a crying out. You want to find light.
You want a picture. Break me open again.
As with Stine’s 2001 chapbook, Lot of My Sister, Ohio Violence is full of lush, minute landscapes, internal and external alike, and Stine’s easy (though by no means simple) handling of brick-heavy themes like desire, sexuality, and loss. Admittedly, a few poems in the collection, such as “Bones” and “In Graceland,” are less successful in terms of the narrative—and much of Stine’s work is powerfully narrative-driven, as in this happened, then this—but the tangible quality of the speakers’ immediate reality, coupled with the emotional resonance of each moment, is never wanting.
Early on in the collection, in “Moon Lake Electric,” Stine tells us, “All the world does is give me signs.” And indeed, the speakers of her poems draw meaning—sometimes whole, sometimes tattered—from their surroundings, noting the small, though hardly insignificant, stories held in every single thing. Shot through with a keen resolve, Ohio Violence is an arresting, despairing book that alternately stuns and seduces.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009