February 6, 2016

Breathing With and Without Air: A Review of Lisa Fay Coutley’s Errata by Anthony Frame

Cover Credit: Southern Illinois University Press
Errata by Lisa Fay Coutley
Southern Illinois University Press (2015)

Reviewed by Anthony Frame

In her prize-winning full-length debut, Errata, Lisa Fay Coutley traces the life of a woman who embodies the roles of daughter, mother, and lover. She is lake and desert. She is the lapidary, the chisel, and the gemstone. She is both the trauma survivor and the language of the disaster. As Coutley writes in “Love & Squall,” “Mine are two / hands, reaching during a squall, brittle / enough to grasp at anything unseen.” Coutley’s poems are constantly grasping for air, water, and for the people who populate her lines. The question her poems pose is not whether any of these can be held, but how. 

Coutley’s poems tend to circle back to four central relationships—the speaker and her father, mother, sons, and lover—that are present in all four sections, rather than collected into one section. This allows these themes to grow and evolve throughout the book much in the way a single piece of music repeated throughout an entire symphony grows and gains new meaning. For example, in an early poem, “Researchers Find Mice Pass On Trauma to Subsequent Generations,” the father is a singularly violent force. He tries to drown the narrator’s pregnant mother and he forces the speaker to fill her mouth with M&Ms. Coutley writes, “before I took my first breath / … / I mastered a palpable fear of choking.” Later in the second section, in the poem “Goodbye in the Voice of My Father,” the father warns his daughter about tornadoes in the new state to where she is moving. The tension in the relationship remains (“A normal bird’ll nest near the nest / where it was born,” the father says), but there has been a shift. “He hates me / for leaving,” she writes. “Himself, for shoving me from the nest.”

A similar evolution occurs in the relationship with the speaker’s sons. Early in the book, in “On Home,” she writes, “in a wake of black mascara / mothers drive away.” But later, in “Driving Up-Canyon with My Two Teenage Sons,” she pulls her sons close as the three of them attempt to claim ownership over their lives:
This, kids, is the year we’ll write our history
        of black ice & snow. Here, each of you hold
                a wiper blade, & I'll accelerate, eyes closed.
Coutley not only evolves the tense relationship between mother and sons, but also the driving image. Earlier, a car that was once a source of distance becomes the binding force. Throughout, the relationships and the recurring images build and grow as the speaker searches for new, better ways to hold on to these people, even as she leaves them and as they leave her. Complementary to her fiercely etched narratives, Coutley’s brilliantly permits the lyric quality of her lines to drive the narratives. Her images are crisp and evocative. She mixes influences of narrative poetry and deep image poetry, allowing sounds of images to pull the reader deep into the poems. Take, for example, “Self-Portrait as Pyrocumulonimbus.” Here, she adopts the persona of a fire cloud, jumping from space to space. She follows the logic of language, of sound, as she traces the path of this storm. “I wander. I err,” she writes. “I lunge / into ductwork & become the bedroom.” The force of the poem comes less from following the storm’s journey than from those hard consonant sounds ringing through the lines. Coutley similarly accomplishes this in “Patentia,” a narrative in which the speaker’s lover has left. She writes:
                                                              She & I:
        whispering to an outline of a shadow. Because bodies,
                we know, are built for falling.
Here, once again, the narrative is allowed to fall to the background. The lover has disappeared, becoming an outline and leaving only the speaker’s divided self. The emotional punch of the poem is then controlled by the counterbalance of those soft sounds and the abruptness of the bodies falling. By heightening those repeated o-sounds, Coutley controls her reader’s ear, offering a blanket against the roughness of the b-sounds. As the images fall, her use of language safely catches the reader with those final words, “for falling,” which are full of breathless consonants.

Coutley’s collection is a masterful exercise in controlling both technique and subject matter. Her speaker moves from lakes to desert, carrying with her the ghosts of her past. And as the poems’ fears–of violence and of losing dear ones–grow, the controlling voice becomes more confident in her ability to carry the weight she bears. “I'll never stop talking,” Coutley writes in “Listen.” This ability to talk, to interpret, allows the speaker’s life, and Coutley’s book, to become an errata—a collection of a correction of errors. It allows Coutley to write a book obsessed with, among other things, psuedodysphagia—the fear of choking, of being without breath—all while crafting a series of poems that will leave her readers breathless.

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