“your mouth / was a city i entered dancing.”

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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.

35 of 100: Emergency Brake by Ruth Madievsky (2015, Tavern Books)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • Much earlier in pandemic quarantine than we are now, Jill Crammond and I “got together” via Zoom. In true “the blonde and the redhead” form, there was lots of chitchat and wine, but we did read some poems and let them inspire some of our own writing “live” on the video conference. Jill had recently discovered the poetry of Ruth Madievsky, and so on her recommendation I ordered it from the publisher.
  • It’s absolutely appropriate that Jill is the one who pointed me toward this collection: like Jill, Madievsky’s writing is next-level playful and imaginative. Both of them have a gift for freshness with language that’s soooooo enviable. The intro to an interview in ZYZZYVA describes Madievsky’s “talent for analogy,” and wowza: each analogy makes you wonder what just hit you and if you’ll be lucky enough to be struck again.
  • That anticipation is teased out over and over throughout the poems in Emergency Brake. In the “The Space Between,” a poem in the book’s second section, Madievsky captures the dynamic perfectly: “I’ve become obsessed / with the naming of things. / The distance between a word / and what it signifies — / is it larger or smaller than the distance between / the scream and the throat muscle / that creates the scream?”
  • Even Madievsky’s discussion of the collection is gorgeous. In that ZYZZYVA interview she says she’s intrigued by the tension between “the ways in which the body enters the world and the world enters the body. Lungs are a core image for me because they’re maybe the best example of the constant exchange between world and body. We think of ourselves as discrete units. We think we know where our bodies begin and end. Really, we’re more like sieves. Some breaches are pleasurable, others odious, and some are so slow and microscopic we don’t notice them until their cumulative effect necessitates a reckoning.” Emergency Brake lives in the whirlwind of that constant exchange and the permeable membranes that may not exist at all.
  • As noted in this interview, Madievsky wrote Emergency Brake while she was a graduate student in pharmacy school. This detail really resonates me as I try to let go of lamenting the limitations my full-time J-O-B places on my writing time/energy/motivation.

Lines I want to remember*:

  • “I could fit / in the mouth of a spoon, / like we were coconut extract / or a bump of cocaine, / pollen and benzodiazepines / and the sound of wind / making love to a clothesline.”
  • “all the bathtubs we’ve entered / the way flags enter planets.”
  • “all my life / I’ve been about as carefree as a soft peach / in a pile of broken glass, my hand / always twitching toward the Ativan bottle, always ready / to pull the emergency brake, this fantasy / … pretend not to hear my brain / trying to eat its way out.”
  • “I remember when your mouth / was a city I entered dancing.”
  • “When I open, I want to be the umbrella, / not the pocketknife.”
  • “Something inside me / scattering like deer.”
  • “I want every cat on this block / to get some / and for every person to forget / the waiting rooms and surgical lights / of winter, … “
  • “Your collarbone is a balcony — / let my lips be the birds.”
  • “like everything / I had ever told my lover / was tap-dancing down my spine, / I kept seeing myself / wrapped around him / like a car around a tree, … “
  • “I could have been a machine / with gumballs inside it.”
  • “I”m feeling like a real person / with real skin, real hair, / a real heart / that isn’t packed in a cooler, / real lungs tied together / not hostages, / but two people / in a bathtub, … “

What others have said:

  • From Prairie Schooner: “Emergency Brake announces a vital voice and vision, the first gasp of something special. Bracing yet raucous, vicious yet whimsical, the collection is an ode to the precariousness of being and the potential in becoming.”
  • From Waxwing: “With a keen eye for metaphor and compelling, voice-driven narratives, Madievsky creates episodes of surprising disjunctive association and beauty. These are poems that metamorphose, extend, and investigate the limits of the body and how it holds together in the aftermath of distress.”

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!

*I capture favorite lines in every set of Reading Notes I’ve published, but something Madievsky says in the ZYZZYVA interview makes me want to rename the section going forward to this: “the incredible feeling of reading a poem and coming across a detail, or a tapestry of details, that makes you feel seen, understood in some essential way.”

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