13 Thoughts on This is Not a Rescue

1. Emily Blewitt is a wonderful Welsh woman (that’s alliteration for those who care).  I had the pleasure of meeting her in Belfast when the two of us were workshopping poems.  Hers stood out.  I knew she had a book slated for publication, so I asked her to send me word when it was published. 


2. I don’t do this often.  I’m not exactly competitive, but, to borrow from Morrissey, I hate it when friends are successful.  I suppose jealous is the right word, though I’m really only jealous when people publish books ahead of me and their books are not good.  If a good writer gets something in print, well, I can only be jealous of their talent, not their success.


3.  Emily Blewitt is certainly a good writer.  A damn good one.  I’ll even call her a poet, which is a word I have a bit of trouble with.  It seems one has to earn that title.  She’s earned it.  I knew as much when I read her poems last year at the workshop, and this was further confirmed when I read This is Not a Rescue, her debut collection. 


4.  The title poem is striking.  I mean, kicking off a poem (and a book) with “I want to tell you that it will not be as you expect” is a smart move.  Aside from asking the reader to catch up, which is to say, asking them to engage, a line like this is a sort of meta announcement to abandon expectations.  Whether or not this was intentional, the effect on this reader was to subvert any assumptions I had about the book, the poem, poetry, and whatever else was going on with me when I sat down to read.  And while the poem goes on to be nothing as meta as what I have stated above, it’s images allure.  I was in, but “How to Marry a Welsh Girl” only further pulled at me. 


5. “How to Marry a Welsh Girl” does not too heavily lean on the accumulation of things, which is good.  I love making lists and using concrete things as a means of creating a scene.  Tom Waits once wrote of this over-attention to detail.  He likes songs that tell you exactly how many cigarette butts are in the ashtray.  In this sense, how could I not adore:


“...For dowry you take what you can,

get what you’re given: the chapel, prolific sheep, jackdaws, circling

hills and black mountains, the usual ropey singing

at the pub they don’t speak English in, cheese and pickle

cocktail sticks, pasties, corned beef.”


When she gets to the act of carving a lovespoon, I had to find out if this is indeed a thing.  (For those who are, as I was, unfamiliar with this custom, go look it up for yourself.  It’s more than worth a google.) 


6. An editor once told me that my poems rely too much on listing.  Blewitt does this with a deft hand.  Damn her.


7.  “The Walking Wed” is clever.  It created a sense of dread with its wedding as zombie apocalypse concept that also brought a giggle, though re-readings make it seem less clever than accomplished.  I hate clever poems that have little to offer aside from a simple idea, usually a joke.  And I love jokes.  I love humor in poetry.  It’s an undervalued thing to throw into a poem, but so many clever poems feel empty, a joke strained.  Thankfully, this is not one of those poems.


8.  Weddings are nice, right?  They pop up in this book, sure, but the sensuality of “Navigation Points” is a nicely balanced shift from the spectacle of weddings to a private intimacy:


“You lower your long dark lashes

just once: to trace your route

across my skin.

Those moles, you say,

fine points for navigation.


You’ll map my constellations, you explain,

know me anywhere.”


I’ve seen poems that go a bit overboard with the sort of thing.  I’m no prude, but there’s a line between sensual and dull.  It gets crossed easily by lesser poets. 


9. Furthering the love poetry is “Lines” which has a moment that makes me wonder if Blewitt (or the speaker of the poem, as there’s no guarantee that the speaker is Emily Blewitt, though readers tend to assume that a poem is always presented by the poet, forgetting that dramatic monologue is a thing) is being sincere when she speaks of loving her lover’s receding hairline “as it shows me more of you.”  It reminds me of poems men have written to their beloveds, the ones teeming with hyperbolic details about the perfections and imperfections of the female body.  Those of us who’ve tried honeydripping in the past might, with a poem like "Lines," get a sense of what it’s like to receive the woo rather than be the pitcher.  While I’m confident this role-reversal was not Blewitt’s intention, I nevertheless found this small detail interesting.  Note to self: go back to your old love poems and reconsider the Nerduaesque bits.


10. As the reader (well, this reader) gets deep into the collection, an idea of the book’s concerns begins to form.  And then a pair of poems—“Sometimes I Think of Chapel” and “Forgiveness”— thwart our certainty.  All those lovely poems, those weddings, those tender moments, those funny subversions of Jane Aust3n and The Walking Dead (and, later, Star Wars, but we’ll get to that) are gone now as we shift to the theme of past trauma.  The mother, who removes her daughter from the chapel where just one damn stanza ago everything seemed so innocent, prays: “let her never learn to kneel”; the speaker channels her parents:


“I am my mother’s daughter. I forgive

the man, my grandmother who let him in,

who called my mother a bloody liar

years later”


This forgiveness boils into vindictive punishment before we’re permitted the relief of looking away. 


11. These themes make a fine stew.  Allusions to literary (Jane Austen heroes in “Devouring Jane”) and popular culture (“The Walking Wed”) find their ultimate expression in “Boba Fett and the Sarlacc,” a Star Wars reference I was happy to see, for a change.  A fine poem, though rereading it this morning reacquainted me with the preceding work “The Couple Opposite” which, in its opening lines, called to mind Rear Window before the real magic of the poem did its thing.  Being an artist is akin to being an extrovert in the sense that artists have something strange within them that demands that they share (sometimes over-share).  But what does it mean to be a reader?  Perhaps we’re the ones looking at the couple through the window, watching their odd performance, making judgments and getting all giddy over the special effects.  This is likely a poor reading of Blewitt’s poem, but it gave me pause.  Any book that can—even accidentally—move me to consider such theoretical bullshit about the role of the reader and writer is worthy of praise.


12.  The book concludes with a very nice poem, “One in Three Billion,” that, while bringing us back to themes of motherhood, chimes on another theme in the collection: animals.  Anyone who’s ever visited my site or spoken with me at all knows that I’m a bit nuts for dogs, though this is a recent lunacy—it took having a dog of my own to unalterably make me a person who must have a pet.  I don’t talk as much about my cat (rest in peace, old man) but he was my first pet and damn if I didn’t feel for him, and for subsequent pets, the sort of love and responsibility that I assume rivals parenthood.  At the risk of pissing off all of my friends with kids, let me stop qualifying things: I am father to those creatures.  And, thus, “One in Three Billion” touched me.  A beautiful closer. 


13.  I feel compelled to state that my extolling of This is Not a Rescue is not coming from a bias for the author, my acquaintance.  She lives in Wales.  I reside in Chicago.  Were it not for Facebook, we’d likely never communicate, and if the book sucked, I could easily pan it and ignore whatever hate messages came my way.  And I would have little trouble writing a less than enthusiastic review if the book merited one.  But it doesn’t.  I almost wish it did, because, again, jealousy.  But I’m happy to write of the book’s quality, the dazzling poems, the clever ones, the eerie ones, because I’m happy to see a debut collection this strong.  I read a lot of poetry and I don’t love it all.  But I believe in poetry the way people believe in god.  It’s the finest of literary art forms.  That is, when it’s done well.  It is also one of the lowest, messiest, most irritating art forms imaginable.  Poetry can be elevating or dispiriting. Or dull.  Or extraordinary. Or just okay.  To even attempt to write a poem is humbling.  To read one as good as the best of This is Not a Rescue is humbling as well.  There is much to admire in this collection.  And that makes me goddamn happy.  If only Emily Blewitt had published a rotten book.  It’d be so much easier to write this review.  If only she’d published a fair book.  I’d have found a way to not write this review.  But she had to go and publish a strong, stunning book.  And so I had to write this review. 


Amusing Ourselves to Death, 32 and Looking Not a Day Older

Every semester that sees me teaching freshman how to avoid comma splices, among other pressing matters, I assign one reading that continues to excite me: “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” by Neil Postman.  It’s a speech Postman delivered before a room of theologians as the 20th century was coming to an end.  There is concern at the start of his talk about the rush of technology that has begun to seem beyond what many thought possible only a few years prior.  I mean, yeah, cellular phones and computers were around in the 1980s, but who among us cared about that junk?  (Okay, a lot of people were interested in these gadgets.  My stepdad, for one.  He always had a computer in the house, even those primitive keyboard-and-screen-in-one clunkers from Radio Shack, though all I remember doing with it was running a program that filled the screen with whatever dirty word I found funny at the moment.) 


But in 1998, when Postman made his speech, the internet was a thing we were only beginning to allow into our everyday lives.  I recall my distrust—it seemed to me that the so-called information highway was more a way to get cheap ego validation and play with toys.  And I was right, of course, though I was neither the first nor the last to state as much.  But I was converted once I got an email account and realized that it would improve my life inasmuch as I no longer had to speak to people on the phone.  God bless email. 


Whatever trepidation I may have had about the fast moving tech the rest of the world was so excited about, Postman was less fearful and more critical in the even-headed manner that seems lost on my students.  They tend to see his speech as an attack on tech from an old man who died before Snapchat, so what did he know?  One student defended tech in her response essay by writing on the wonders of Tinder, but I digress. 


Postman was not a technophobe.  He merely understood that technology is, in his words, “a Faustian bargain.  Technology giveth and taketh away.”  Meaning that for every advantage that we gain with new technologies (speed, access to information, connection to people), we lose something (focus, decorum, connection to people).  This is not exactly unique to technology, as all that is added to our world exacts some sort of price, but it is a salient point that seems lost on the tech zealots who see every app as a means of “making the world a better place.” 


Suffice it to say that my students—being young and not really able to remember a time before smart phones or laptops—see this speech as an assault on their way of life.  I try to defend Postman because I happen to agree with his speech, but I am biased.  I’ve long thought his voice was among the most rational ones that see television and computers as being less than the miracles they are often thought to be.  At the very least, he saw them as more complex.  And while people have been bad mouthing TV for generations, few saw the problem from Postman’s point of view.


Which brings me to Amusing Ourselves to Death, the 1985 book that will forever be associated with Postman’s name.  Similar to Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” idea, Postman’s critique of “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” will forever be his biggest claim to fame.  And Rightfully so!  Amusing Ourselves to Death is a now a whopping 32 years old and showing few gray hairs and next to no liver spots.  Sure, some of the focus seems dated only due to the tech saturation that has caused us to spend more time in front of the computer than the television, though, of course, the two have begun merging into one.  Netflix, you seductive bastard.  Aside from a few details that date the text (references to “Dallas” and “Cheers”) nothing seems older than a day, provided one sees Postman’s discussion of television as applicable to the streaming services and YouTube.  Which I do. 


The most relevant chapters in Amusing Ourselves to Death have to do with the format of TV news and our political process, the former being predicated on short bits of information followed by equally short bits of information interrupted by commercials and scored to emotionally manipulative music, none of it delivered with any sort of real analysis or time for reflection.  When we receive info via the nightly newscast, we get mere drips from an iceberg.  The format is not meant to engage us critically or to illuminate the stories, just deliver them in an entertaining way.  The reason why is that, according to Postman, TV, like all technologies, has a philosophy that favors certain things over others.  And TV favors entertainment, even when it’s pretending to inform.  Who wants to think when watching the tube?  Now, if you ask me, the other issue here is the problem with capitalism: everything is a commodity, including information, thus the imperative is to make profit.  And the news, divorced from the music and the attractive smiling idiots on camera, is boring.  At least when compared to the rest of TV.  The newscast was once expected to lose the networks money.  The news was seen as a public service, not entertainment.  Oh, those must’ve been the days!


As for the second relevant chapter I mentioned, the one having to do with the political process in the age of show business, Mr. Postman’s words have never before seemed so germane.  What he reserves for Reagan (in one interview he noted the irony—and the lack of public awareness of this irony—of Reagan, a man who seemed to both say nothing and contradict himself at will, being labeled “the great communicator”) is more than applicable to the tweeter-in-chief currently residing in the White House.  But lest I digress into a Trump bash-a-thon, let me remember that the Postman’s criticisms—that political discourse is a sideshow when it is done on TV and, thus, politicians are rendered inarticulate and/or ineffectual—apply to every presidential candidate of my lifetime.  I was born when Nixon was president.  We all know of the debacle that was his debate against Kennedy, to which he blamed the make up man.  And he was right to do so, for, to paraphrase Postman, to be a politician in the era of TV is to be akin to a celebrity—you must look reasonably normal if not attractive.  No fat presidents since Taft.  God knows FDR would never have been elected were the pubic to have seen the ravages of his polio.  My grandmother, god love her, had a difficult time voting for Kerry over Bush because she didn’t relish the idea of looking at Kerry’s droopy face for the next four years. 


Postman’s point about the manner in which television has degraded public speech, information, political and religious discourse, and even education (he saw “Sesame Street” to be of more of a threat to our culture than “Dallas”) was spot fucking on.  And it remains so in the era of social media and memes.  Is there any more obnoxious means of making a point than a meme?  When I mention this to people—particularly those younger than 30—they roll their eyes and counter that memes are funny.  That’s all they’re meant to be.  And I agree— they can be quite amusing, but a large segment of the public is currently sharing (not to mention creating) memes that seek to make sociopolitical statements.  While they probably would, if pressed, use the same justification (“C’mon, get a sense of humor”) they are essentially proving the points Postman made over 30 years ago: we are gleefully reducing everything to entertainment.  And some things shouldn’t be entertaining.  They should be considered important or vital or necessary or lovely or fulfilling without garish dressing.   There’s nothing wrong with the Oscars or sit-coms or even memes, but when our politicians and spokespersons have to take to these mediums because the public will not engage in essential civic processes otherwise, there’s a big problem.  But hey, we’re all amused.  The decline will be chock full of yuks.