Lo (Iowa Poetry Prize)
Winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, Lo, a striking collection of poems by Melissa Crowe, is a pick-it-up-and-read-it straight-through collection, an “OMG, OMG!” page-turner. Crowe takes into consideration the the big questions in life as much as the pleasure of small details. These acute yet lived-in poems hearken us to do as the book’s title suggests: Look, see, and observe.
Veering between home and homeland, Crowe centers on family past and present, hearkening all to behold what’s here in the moment. She begins in girlhood, a self-described “kid from a canned fruit cocktail family.” Nostalgia and humor elevate the mood, allowing for the stark contrast of cruelty, poverty, and fears characteristic of an almost folkloric childhood.
The poems speak of (it’s tragic but not wrong to say common) neglect, abuse, and trauma and the inevitable fallout that arises from it all. What is expressed throughout is perhaps summarized in Crowe’s line from the book’s closing poem: “In some ways so glorious is the world I forget / how terrible it is—” and there is plenty of terrible.
However, among the poems set in childhood, Crowe acknowledges the more positive impacts of poverty. In “I Want to Tell You What Poverty Gave Me,” she names “life outside capital,” and describes the profound humility she experienced as a child given access to free food and books, and her deep appreciation for simple pleasures, and the delight taken in small gestures:
“. . . Maybe that was the winter we lived
in a rental without a working refrigerator, cartons
of milk lodged in the snow outside the front door,
the stuff always a little frozen when we drank it,
those crystals too a magic we made because we could,
because we had to. I even ate the snow, in a big bowl
with Kool-Aid, scrappy sub for the Slush Puppies
I’d yearn for come summer, pick the bottles to buy.
And here I am talking again about buying things,
but what I hoped you’d see is that so often—
for stretches of days—we didn’t. Couldn’t. Free.”
While this poem takes lemons and (almost literally) makes lemonade, other poems call for a sobering day of reckoning that will, sadly, never come.
In “When She Speaks of the Fire” Crowe keeps vigil for her girl-self, who was not spared from sexual assault, showing what happens to the mind and body of a child when abuse is ignored. While some aspects of poverty may have been character-building, Crowe draws the line at such devastating neglect:
“Nobody asked me. I understood they knew
already. I understood they didn’t want to know.
I read animals can sense any disaster
that’s natural—smelling wildfire, they run
or stand in water or hide under rocks
or bury themselves in the dirt. Some die . . .
. . . And what about me? Girl to whom language
seemed an element so reactive it wanted only
my breath to ignite it, each word a sliver
of phosphorous I held in the dark of my mouth . . .
. . . still and silent reignites my chest
hurts when I
imagine giving you this
story it hurts when I
keep it to myself . . .”
On the book’s cover, a girl comfortably holds a flame as she fearlessly gazes into the future. She, like the girl in the poem, has ignited her truth with her fear. We assume (because the story continues) that the girl emerges from the metaphorical fire. Next, come Crowe’s deeply emotional and perceptive poems on marriage—honest, and accurate, they still manage to convey a deep intimacy that rings familiar to those who will recognize it. “Poem Written After I Have Again Needlessly Hurt My Husband’s Feelings,” for example, is a palpitating love poem. “Epithalamium with Empty Nest” is erotic as well as tender.
Although Crowe sees her inheritance as “an unplayable lottery,” there is an admirable embodiment detectible in the process and progress of the poems. Bad things happened. Marriage is hard. For good reasons, she worries about her child. However, the girl who carried the fire has protected the girl-self, thus ensuring that there would be hope for a future.
It is not, however a complete escape as Crowe admits in “When I Was Afraid”: “We will escape but not / unscathed.” The girl, now woman, wife, and mother, still recognizes threats in their new forms: political corruption, campus sexual violence, inhumane treatment of immigrants, etc. Crowe’s “America You’re Breaking,” with its heavily enjambed lines split by caesura, represents a scaffolding about to collapse. Mercifully, an incredible generosity is granted in the book’s final poem, but to say more would be a spoiler for this must-read collection.
Yes, we are coming apart. Like birds with broken necks, butterflies trampled and dying in the grass, we are made to suffer. Yet Crowe persists on our behalf, with lines that embolden and allow: “Mended creatures maybe wobble into air, / fly their days sky worthy but imperfect.”