by Lucy Frost.
(CW: discussion of sexual assault)
In “Apple Lover” and “Some Boys Terrify Marine Creature (6),” two exuberant and elegant rhapsodies of survival, Becki Hawkes achieves a voice of lyric suppleness and epic durability, surveying the details of pain and the pitch of transcendence in a grand, fluid tonality whose precise modulation figures the shape and color and texture of experience. Her phrasing, sinewy with surprise and wit, laced with pressure points, shaped by the tensions of understanding gained in time, arrests the eye with sharp delineations and an awareness of meaning’s keen underlying edges—“some boys, / any boys,” the deceptively laconic parenthetical that haunts “Some Boys Terrify Marine Creature (6)” with its antagonist, is a vital moment to the art, scaffolding the eloquent balance of her perspective; definite but abstract, not an inch closer to or farther from us than it needs to be. The shading of generals and particulars, of “any” and “some,” signals the versatility of Hawkes’s poetic control. Likewise the shifting parameters of “Apple Lover,” whose festive botanical-entomological census—a whirl of lavish organic observation, crowned with “five Red Admirals, wings as vivid as hearts” amid feasts of “Braeburn, Jazz, / Granny Smith” (the omission of “and” before “Granny Smith” suggesting further bounties beyond the limits of enumeration)—spiral about the nervous understanding of trauma, the anxiety of regeneration.
When that anxiety becomes explicit in “Apple Lover,” Hawkes’s control takes on a stark splendor and urgency. A fluid syntactical architecture brings us from butterflies drinking from a “fallen Bramley” to the pointedness of “I dreamed I could feast too / because it’s been years / since it happened, and I don’t talk about it much.” The transformation in register is total yet necessary, natural as a change in tides, natural as an earthquake’s sharp interruptive significance, painful because pain and the active engagement with pain are the substance of these two poems’ internal music. The structural trajectory of “Apple Lover,” from sumptuous idyll to a recollection of sexual assault and its aftermath, speaks most fluently to Hawkes’s achievement when, in the poem’s subsequent return to the pastoral ecstasies of its opening, the language enacts a complex liberation for and by and through the speaker—we return to a nature poem, but with richer accents and deeper perception than at the start, because with a renewed understanding of natural significance—a growth of selfhood that at once includes beauty and reckons with sorrow. “Apple Lover” becomes the luminous, gushing song of “all of me poured into yes,” a gorgeous Whitmanian affirmation of selfhood.
This procedure takes on sharper edges in “Some Boys Terrify Marine Creature (6),” whose idiosyncratic extended metaphor begins uses a crossword puzzle clue (as explained by an author’s note) for a tremulous essay on cruelty and resilience. Just as “Apple Lover” never resorted to merely “motivational” rhetoric, “Some Boys Terrify Marine Creature (6)” is wholly free of triteness—its injunction to “neatly behead / the boys, cut the terror in two” is a wonderfully refreshing alternative to easy platitudes about forgiving and forgetting, sharpened by the dialectic energy Hawkes summons here, the vivid contrasts between the cruel “boys” who have “made a circle” around and “are laughing” at the target of their viciousness—a scene painfully familiar to so many of us– and the “marine creature” who rather thrillingly wins the day. The analogy is straightforward but versatile, incorporating the ineffectual “ocean,” whose “quiet song, not loud enough / to drown the high flayed pain that tastes like salt” stands with bitter accuracy for all bystanders to the world’s ugliness—and, with masterly strokes of pathos and perspective, incorporating also a second-person narrator whose interpretive drive elevates the bare fact of the marine creature’s struggle into a living symbol, an account of just how and why “there are always / routes out, / always more meanings than you think.”