something like forgiveness

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

18 of 100: Something Like Forgiveness by Rebecca Schumejda (2019, Stubborn Mule Press)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • I have the pleasure of knowing Rebecca Schumejda in real life. Our paths don’t often cross — even though she lived a couple miles down the road for a while — but I’ve heard her read at a number of local poetry events over the years. I’ve been a fan of her work for a long time, and I’m so much in awe of this book. As a single long poem about a family tragedy, it’s a massive undertaking both emotionally and poetically, and she hits it out of the park. This book is engaging. It’s breathtaking. Her torment is palpable. I paused more than once to cry. I actually had to put the book down and sob. And it’s not because I know this story already. This is the first and only telling of it that I’ve heard, and it’s stunning.
  • Rebecca’s use of form in the collection takes the reader along on her journey, circling, stuttering (one step forward; two steps back), sinking/rising and not knowing which way is up. I’ve included some examples of how the poems look/work on the page. See how they interrupt one another? Like thoughts. As lines of thinking, they make sense on their own and somehow, though in a more jagged/jarring way, they also work together. (You’ll find three poems in each of these examples: the two vertical poems and the one made by reading horizontally.)

here, as well…

  • This approach very much mimics what our brains do when processing trauma, when grieving, when struggling to understand what’s totally incomprehensible. In setting up the poem this way, Rebecca asks the reader to do some work, and we do. It puts us in the position of interrogating these experiences right along with the narrator. I’m in awe.
  • Rebecca is so skillful at this that she’s able to manipulate it to slow time or build momentum. For example, when the narrator seems to find some clarity (when resolution seems to be building up some steam), the device used above is less present. The poem becomes a bit more linear and as a result it carries us along with greater speed.
  • The question with a long poem is how to sustain it. In this case, Rebecca drops and picks up a number of threads (some are narrative elements; others are images) as the poem progresses. These threads usher us through the poem, like Ariadne helping Theseus through the maze. The narratives/images tangle with one another and flow into one another, but a familiar one is always present. There’s always at least one to hold onto. They include the tragic event at the core of this piece and the forgiveness the narrator pursues, a cat that hunts birds, home renovations, the woods, motherhood and childhood, childhood trauma, the jail, cockroaches, bodies of water, fish, etc. These repeat and recur at various paces, something like a fever dream, but the reader knows from the beginning they’re going somewhere. And so we follow.
  • The poems are accompanied by full-color collages done by Hosho McCreesh. You can get a sense of the artwork — and the poems — from videos posted at Rebecca’s YouTube channel. I’ve linked to some below.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “forgiving / you // is like using a feather / as a hammer”
  • “how the p, g, and y hand low / in apology / like upside-down antlers // there are second / in each minute that I want to / disappear behind the tree line”
  • “forgiveness is a total gut // when you expected / a simple remodel”
  • “my life is like this / so chaotically mundane”
  • “a halo of red feathers mark / your grave, you are / dead / and alive / you were taken / simultaneously / and you took // … I had a dream about you / you were hiding in the woods / behind my house / I left a bowl of cat food out // in the middle of the night / I watched you crawl / out of the woods to eat // I felt guilty for feeding you / as if you were a lie / that I should starve”
  • “you said sorry to me / sort of / but it was as if the letters were / birds / startled by gunshots / flying in different directions”
  • “I need to know that I knew you / before I didn’t”
  • “I love her in a way I never / loved myself — // that’s what children do / they make you love more / than you thought you ever could”
  • “If you could do this / anyone is capable of anything / this thought terrifies me”

What others have said:

  • from misfit magazine: “How do you forgive the unforgivable? This is the question Rebecca Schumejda wrestles with, on a grand scale, in this emotionally taut, tightly structured, intensely personal poem.  Using a slow reveal, the poet dispenses morsels of information, with regard to the nature of the crime, and her struggles with coping with her love for her brother who committed it and, finally, the heinous nature of what he did, until we learn, as well,  what happened.  She asks, among the many effective refrains, ‘What if you had died that night?’ Somehow life could have been easier if he had.  Maybe. I know how she feels. I’ve been there: different relative, similar crime.  Something Like Forgiveness is not simply a must read, it is an experience.”
  • from illustrator Hosho McCreesh: “Rebecca asked me to do some collage for the book, and little did I know the text and the images would pull together so well. It’s really a triumph for her, as she bravely pushes herself into some difficult new poetic territory, writing raw and close to the bone about a recent family tragedy. I consider it an honor to have just a small part in this ferocious and honest book, and encourage anyone reading this to go give it a look. The folks at Stubborn Mule went big, doing beautiful full-color art within the pages of this book-length rumination on potentially forgiving the unforgivable.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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