Between the Crackups, Rebecca Lehmann

I came across this extraordinary collection via the wonderful world of Twitter and I do recommend that people follow @saltpublishing; they publish some cracking poets including Rebecca Lehmann who wrote Between the Crackups, winner of the 2011 Crashaw Prize. Courtesy of Salt’s Twitter presence I came across a number of excerpts including ‘The Devil Is In Detroit’ and ‘Ten Bells Tell’ both of which excited me and prompted a speedy order of the full collection.

The cover features an image of what looks like a child’s head cast in some sort of pottery or clay, the child’s eyes aren’t really visible but the ‘O’ shape the mouth has formed suggests screaming or crying which renders the picture altogether unsettling. Initially this seemed an odd choice of cover but as I ventured through Lehmann’s work, ‘unsettling’ became a word that stuck in my mind and the image now seems a wholly appropriate introduction to the text.

Lehmann’s poetry is intensely raw: her language is brutal, exposing and at times merciless in its depictions and examinations. The image of, “a wet puppy nestled in your testicles” is not one easily forgotten, but nor is it one easily broken down. It is this quality that I have rather fallen in love with. The collection is artful, witty and intelligent in its innovative and uncompromising exploration of the space between things (be it selves, relationships, traditions or geographies); but it requires of the reader an emotional response above an intellectual one. It avoids pretension but manages, as the blurb puts it, to “banter casually with the tropes, traditions, and authors of the Western poetic canon”. What makes it remarkable is that it absolutely does all of this and still hits you somewhere deeply personal and potentially painful, the voice is audacious and yet refuses to deny complexity of feeling or form. In fact it requires a connection between the two.

I commented to a friend that reading Between the Crackups feels at times like reading an Alethiometer – the magical object that Lyra possesses in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. For those of you unfamiliar with this instrument its purpose is to tell the truth but it cannot be read by sheer force of study. It consists of multiple layers of symbols and images that can be understood in different ways and combinations. It requires any would-be truth-seeker to feel their way between the symbols and pictures, to puzzle out the levels until they sense that they have hit upon a moment of unerring truth. And I must reiterate: I absolutely love it.

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