Beth Bachmann, Temper

Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
2009, 65 pages, paperback, $15

writing about family can be tricky. Though the subject of family lends itself to a myriad of topics–culture, love, relationship, dysfunction–the nature of the lyric poem demands something of the poet not so easily done when dealing with family: the removal of the self from the occasion. Familial bonds are not easily broken, but shedding the closeness one has with family to gain objectivity and avoid sentimentality is the trick to maintaining a lyric voice, a trick that Beth Bachmann has mastered.

In her debut, Temper, Bachmann recounts the murder of a beloved sister. The book reads like poetry, but is as page turning as a mystery novel. The events play out like a Law and Order episode: a young woman’s body is found by the train tracks, and her father is charged as the main suspect. What is given beyond these facts is an unsettling account of the trauma a family endures after such violence.

The book begins with the title poem, which features a first line that reads somewhat like prose–“Some things are damned to erupt like wildfire”–and then melts into a more ambiguous lyric language. “Temper” sets the mood and tone for the collection, while the following poem, “Paternoster,” readies the reader for the events that take place later in the book:

It’s not easy, even with this sinker, to go below the surface.
To ask you to offer me your open throat.

I’ll start with the thing dragged up: the body of my sister.
I’ll give you the location: the tracks.

The red treble designed to mock blood, to stick into the skin: one suspect–

our father

Put this begging in your mouth, a decade of loaded beads.

With each new poem, the mystery unfolds, but only by fragments of the poet’s recollection. In flashes of memory or imagined scenes, Bachmann weaves and unweaves the sequence of the story over and over again. Moving from mysteries of the father and of the sister to the ever-present image of the lifeless body of a young woman in an overgrowth of weeds, the poems offer blinks into various facets of a mind trying to cope with a mess of tragedy.

In a detached voice, Bachmann tells a horrific tale of loss, anger, and constant questioning, constant reaching for truth. And though the tone is stoic at times, a subtle vulnerability lies quietly within, grazing softly on the reader a profound grief not daring to let itself rip apart in rage. In “Second Mystery of My Sister,” Bachmann writes:

It’s impossible to define force, but it’s not hard to figure
the size of an arrow drawn in a diagram of the free body.

Blunt.    Entry.
These cannot be measured like the integrity of a wing.

If you think of a torso as a box, you can see
how someone might want to open it with his fingers.

The last stanza of this tiny poem exemplifies the ways Bachmann uses restraint to express violence. It is the shadow of the terror that the reader is shown, suggesting that the act itself would be too much. 

Some poems, like “Rapt,” do tend toward more graphic detail, and though more description of a violent act is revealed, the description is not direct which keeps the language poetic:

When a man takes a woman from behind, she cannot see him,
even though, in this instance, she is prey.  Her field of vision
is designed to capture sudden movement, not the lumbering

of his body at her back.  She tracks the objects closest to her face:
the burlap grasses, the splayed legs of the railroad trestle.
If she looks at them with one eye and then the other, they shudder.

However, it seems that there is a necessary emotional drive missing in the lyrical narrative of the collection. There is a tension pulling throughout the book. The need for the lyrical objective contends with the subject matter at hand. There are moments in Temper when the speaker feels too removed, too silent, lacking a readable emotional connection with the subject matter. There are times when it seems appropriate for the speaker’s profound grief to reveal itself as violently as the acts described. While detachment is perfectly suited for a poem like “Second Mystery of My Sister,” a detached tone seems ill-fitting in a poem like “Rapt,” in which a horrific crime is enacted. 

As necessary and, at times, beautiful this detachment can be, the book as a whole seems to lack catharsis. And though the objective stoicism often works well poem to poem, collectively the distant tone of the speaker leaves the reader reaching for an emotive release appropriate to the narrative being told. Perhaps this is asking for too much. Perhaps when a speaker is so close, sisterly close, to a tragedy, restrained detachment is the only means of finding solace. But perhaps in some instances, it is necessary for the poet to break from lyric demands.

–Jessica Binkley