Review by Anne Champion
IN THE KETTLE, THE SHRIEK
by Hannah Stephenson
Gold Wake Press
5108 Avalon Drive
Randolph, MA 02368
2013, 82 pp., $15.95
I have always been attracted to the notion of poetry as prophecy, shamanism, or spirituality. As Percy Shelley famously said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” As a young writer, I would go to poetry readings and hear the rhythms and cadences of haunting truths that made me nearly fall to my knees in worship of the writers. I am reminded of this when reading Hannah Stephenson’s first collection, In the Kettle, the Shriek. She is a shaman of words, a poet of consciousness. She journeys into a deeper reality with the aid of language, bringing back energy and healing through poetic acts and the shapeshifting of physical objects and landscapes. In Birth of a Poet, William Everson raised a clamorous appeal for poets to reawaken to their shamanic calling: “O Poets! Shamans of the word! When will you recover the trance-like rhythms, the subliminal imagery, the haunting sense of possession, the powerful inflection and enunciation to effect the vision? Shamanize! Shamanize!” Stephenson accomplishes this with a visionary and magical sense of clarity, producing a collection that explores longing, loss, and want through a “cornucopia of deterioration.” With curiosity, precision, and awe, Stephenson’s “I” transforms into the collective body; her “I” is an eye, a keen observer of the world.
In “Telepathy,” the speaker engages in an interesting sort of poetic engagement with the reader that I have never encountered before. The poem begins as a familiar game: “Pick a card. Picture it.” However, it takes an appropriately magical turn when it says:
You’re at the volcano, grinning big, I mean
really big, with your eyes totally open
in surprise because someone is standing
next to you with his arm around your shoulders.
Who is it. Who do you see. What does he do
when the ground starts jostling against your feet.
Suddenly and surprisingly, the speaker forces the reader into deep self reflection, plunging us into an imaginary territory where we must admit who we love most, who we want protecting us, and how they succeed or fail as the world begins to shake or crumble. Additionally, Stephenson does not use question marks for her questions (a technique that is continued throughout the entire book). Normally, I would find this annoying, but Stephenson’s purposeful use of it made me thoughtfully pause over the questions more than I would have with question marks present. I began to see that our questions themselves are so revealing that they are not questions at all: they are facts and truths about humanity.
Some of the most potent commonly shared human experiences are loss and death. The collection thematically coheres by meditating on grief in many poems.
In “Seasonally Affected,” the images allude to death throughout: daylight “drains away,” branches are described as bones, plant life remains but does not grow. The poem ends with these lines:
Tell your cells
that this bulb is the sun transformed into
a potted plant. They may or may not
fall for it. There will always be
darkness in you. What can you build
with it, with your sensitivity.
I found these two stanzas tenderly poignant. They point to the way that we try to deny grief, rationalize our way out of it, trick ourselves, often unsuccessfully, into not feeling it. However, ultimately, our sensitivity, our hurt, our darkness is engrained into our DNA.
In fact, even Stephenson’s titles reveal how interested she is in exploring what is most common among people. Many of her poems are titled after common clichés or phrases, in which she trumps the reader’s expectations by turning the cliché on its head. Some examples are “Little Black Dress,” “Five Second Rule,” “First Things First,” and “Serious Stuff.” In one of my favorite poems, “Psalm Dot Com,” she addresses the millennial age of the internet:
We cannot touch
meaning, but we can gesture
toward it, point at it, point it out
for others in the room so they
can share with their grandchildren
what it was like, beauty dot edu,
a great calm dot com. #Amen.
While the use of hashtags and dot com in poetry can be read as humorous, I believe this poem is actually a profound exploration of the notion of spirituality, connection, communication, and community in contemporary society. In fact, I often wonder why poets don’t talk about texts, emails, hashtags, facebook, and dot coms more often, as that is the real world that we remain deeply submerged in on a daily basis. In this poem, Stephenson explores what that immersion means for our traditional ideals of love and connection.
Similarly, Stephenson examines serious topics such as change, death, life, and mortality in a poem titled “Fraction,” which responds to a tweet by Jimmy Kimmel: “One day, my heart will stop beating. (Not everything is a joke).” The speaker then begins to imagine a world without herself in it. The objects owned are dispersed, the celebrities change, the friends are all dead as well. She states:
Feathers fill the pillows, and teens
and preteens take the risk of placing
their tongues in each other’s mouths.
Forever, you will never come back.
Here, we see that in death, life is not that changed at all: the cycles of love, risk, and the daily pleasures of life remain. Life changes, and we change, but life also stays exactly the same as it’s always been.
Hannah Stephenson’s first collection is soul food: it’s heavy and it sticks to your ribs long after you have consumed it. She’s tackling big game in this collection, carefully examining notions that may seem beyond our grasp. She looks at topics that terrify straight in the eye, and the originality of her images exposes a clarity that is difficult to pull off, but her risks are well worth the reward. I’ll end this review with my favorite lines from “Reciprocity;” they beautifully embody the themes of loss and memory that anchor this stunningly prophetic book.
So it is with cities that we go away from.
That which we leave
Swipes slimy fingers over us, slipping out.
What we hang onto
gets compressed, layered. Remembering
destroys a place,
obliterates whatever does not glitter, makes
a new thing for us
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, Pank Magazine, The Comstock Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Poetry Quarterly, Cider Press Review, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a Pushcart Prize nominee, a St. Botolph Emerging Writer’s Grant nominee, and a Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop participant. She holds degrees in Behavioral Psychology and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College. She currently teaches writing and literature at Emerson College, Wheelock College, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston. (anne-champion.com)