September 10, 2011

Review by Ash BowenThe Carnival of Breathing

IN THE CARNIVAL OF BREATHING
by Lisa Fay Coutley

Black Lawrence Press
P.O. Box 327
Theresa, NY 13691
ISBN 978-0-9828766-3-3
2011, 25 pp., $9.00
www.blacklawrencepress.com

The latest chapbook from Lisa Fay Coutley, In the Carnival of Breathing, is an emotionally complex series of poems that spends the bulk of its real estate contemplating the complicated nature of responsibility—from motherly to familial—while exploring the even more rocky landscape of personal resignation to the ungrasped possibilities of this world. The collection, winner of the Fall 2009 Black River Chapbook Competition, is one of the most striking and personally satisfying poetry collections that I’ve read in a while.

When reading Coutley’s collection, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the essay Raymond Carver wrote when editors at Esquire asked him to discuss his literary influences. The editors had intended Carver to write on the impact other writers had leveraged on his writing; instead, they got back the essay “Fires,” wherein he discussed his children and the unabated drain they had on his time and finances, and how that set of circumstances had most influenced his work.

Coutley’s poems don’t go quite this far, but alive in the poems are a pervasive sense of gloom and a creeping hopelessness often born out of her speakers’ motherly responsibilities. In one of the strongest poems in the collection, “On Home,” a beleaguered mother endures the joyless and thankless job of rearing children. She resorts to leaving herself reassuring notes around her home in effort to stave off her impulses to flee. There are no Beth Ann Fennelly-style poems that expound on the awe and wonder of motherhood. Coutley’s speaker flatly fails to understand her sons, both of whom irritate her:

The youngest wants to change his name
to the playground pimp. When we circle up
for dinner, I’m careful not to say chicken breast
or meatball or anything they can follow with
     that’s what she said.

All winter long I’ve left
feel-good Post-its on the bathroom mirror,
the espresso maker, the edge of my razor.
Every day, I’ve given myself reasons to stay.

Time and again, Coutley’s speakers struggle to maintain. The first poem, “Staying Afloat,” presents the collection’s preoccupation with water. Coutley performs something quite unique with her water imagery. Unlike many instances of water used in poetry to symbolize renewal or cleansing, water in Coutley’s hands become symbolic of struggle, representative of malevolent forces—both inside and outside the home—her speakers must overcome (or at least endure).

The struggle with water remains ever-present and affects the women in the poems in profound ways. In “To Sleep,” the struggle alters the physiology of the speaker wherein she doesn’t experience sleep in the same way as other women but sleeps as a woman “who swims with narcolepsy . . . // . . . without drowning . . .” and who is made “to stay / still and take it, to love paralysis / to … jump in water, legless.”

By the middle of the book, water/struggle has come to represent the whole being of the speakers—the result of the travail that has made them tough and feminine at the same time. The speaker in “My Lake” overflows with bravado and swagger, claiming her water owns boxing gloves, doesn’t take any shit, eats red meat and murders. But the woman’s lake has also been classically trained in lovemaking, owns lingerie, and at the sight of mating birds, folds her arms into a cradle.

The collection’s last several poems deal with loss of one kind or another. The poem “After the Fire” recounts the story of a mother attending to her son in wake of the death of the boy’s pet dog. The poem is quite harrowing when it nears the end when we discover that even with the best intentions, the speaker hasn’t really taught her children the coping skills to maintain either. And so it’s true for the speaker’s son who, like his mother, is “searching for air / underwater.”

The book closes with “Barefoot on the Pulpit,” a companion of sorts to an earlier poem called “View from the High Road,” which is most easily explained as a breakup poem. “View from the High Road” is a kiss-off after the fact, spoken with a bareknuckle delivery akin to “My Lake.” “Barefoot on the Pulpit,” represents, to my ear, the only poem in which the albatross has dropped and genuine hope emerges. The possibility for love enters the landscape and Coutley’s speaker finally emerges from the water where there is “so much breath.”

The only troubling spot in the book is that Coutley can go in search of sound rather than sense; or, perhaps, to be more even-handed, the poems sometime journey in directions that I’m unable to follow on a purely logical level, having to trust my emotional impulses through the poems (though the soundscapes that she presents are lovely enough that I would follow anyway).

Coutley is already publishing in the finer literary journals, and I fully hope a full-length collection emerges sooner rather than later. In the Carnival of Breathing is a bold poetry collection, and one I admire very much. Coutley’s voice is one that I look forward to hearing more from in the future.

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Ash Bowen is completing his PhD at the University of North Texas. His poems have appeared in New England Review, Rattle, Blackbird, and will appear in the anthology Best New Poets 2011. He is co-managing editor of Linebreak(www.linebreak.org).