Coming back inside is always cooler. You notice the carpet. The rooms smell like something. In Odes to Lithium (Alice James Books), Shira Erlichman returns to the world. Then she forms her own—otherwise known as a home.
First, she collects what is. A Cognitive Behavioural exercise: to list her environment in a rainbow’s order, to bloom her back into the material. “Blue sky. Blue sky. Blue jacket on me.” Purple of “a passing woman’s cold lips.” She pockets each rock and drops a circle around her—the first suggestion of a place that is hers.
Then she shrinks down to the size of a word and builds. Rebuilds. She pounds words into one, into transparent fusions that give away their own origin, the crash making the new words gallop inside of themselves. Like a heart. Like her father trying to fix a precious sculpture, she “quietly glues knife to flower.”
This intentional play is distilled in Erlichman’s children’s book, Be/Hold (Penny Candy Books), where she calls compound words “language’s smallest poem.” The first domestication of language. First furnishing of her own vocabulary, own wordhome. Little halves that she can warm her hands around. “Seesaw,” “slowpoke,” “sunset.”
Next come the objects of domesticity, which spill out like sleeves from a closet. Mirrors, bathtubs, bowls. Bowls. Bowls full of pulled chicken, sometimes coffee, so much cereal. “Thick milk.” Maybe because bowls cradle. They house sound. Host a lazy current between their lips. Unlike a plate, nothing will slide off a bowl. But a bowl is also more precarious; it can be tipped over. Porcelain cracks. “I clean my dish so hard it flies from my hands and it shatters.”
All this work clangs against her recall of the most unnatural, the most undomestic. In the psych ward, even the bed is called “foreign,” the hallways “electric.” No household noun is left adjectiveless, lest it be mistaken for personal possession in the retelling. A “pay phone.” The “slap of neon lights.” “Public sheets / that had belonged to others’ private sweat.” “The glory of autumn”—there it is, the colour, trying—“outside your barred window.”
This is the opposite of medical diagnosis, of a doctor who “stared straight through my skull.” Because the flipside of prescription—that scrawled-on paper—is description. In other words, a list of possible side effects, what-will-happen-to-yous—memory loss, increased thirst, blurred vision, whatever, whatever—is not the same as what it feels like to move, semipermeable, in the body that feels them. But Erlichman tells us. “Who needs memories when you have arms around you.”
Erlichman tucks rocks into both books, lets them mean everything. Because “even the smallest rock knows what the mountain knows” (Be/Hold). Because “the side effect of being remembered is being held like a stone” (Odes). Her odes commingle with drawings of half-moments, figures pulling off shirts, just, just before the disheveled after. Maybe, unlike those drawings, a stone is a full moment. Not always round, but an entire shape. She writes, “The side effect of a stone that is not a stone is throwing the stone & watching it fly.” To Lithium, she writes, “Because of you something heavy could fly.” Because the capacity for flight—surmounting an ostensible given, like gravity; an ostensible given, like mental illness—should be an impossibility. How you are assumed to be done for. And then you take off.
Other rocks thud. Dr. Stone, “you wrote the prescription,” anyway. Of the mole on Dr. Stone’s chin, of the trying, still, to salvage: “If I can like that small brown stone, / I can like her.” More: a mother’s scattered emails, a hopeful pamphlet couple looking for a so-called healthy surrogate, gatekeepers who ask, “But why so many poems about it?” A friend who, after taking birth control with her coffee, says, “No offense, but personally I could never take drugs.” “Even the pharmacist at the pickup counter whispered, The Lithium?”
“Brother, […] let me explain.” “Father, […] let me—” “I’m me explain.” Of the people she met in group therapy, “There is a common thread—someone didn’t listen to them.”
For all the rebounding slights, Erlichman doesn’t try to tout moral superiority. She looks at another outpatient, “black bangs pasted to sweaty forehead,” and thinks, “Sure, just weeks ago I’d roamed my college campus naked, cooing to neon ghosts […] but I wasn’t her.” I have tried to differentiate, too. I have been both. The harmed and the harm, often at once.
I think of a Lorelei Ramirez tweet about the constraints of queerness’ liberation: “It’s really beautiful you know? Seeing everyone trying to be free. Seeing people freak out when they are contained in language. Even white people. Or rich people. Or pretty people whatever. We’re all trying to be free and free of shame. It’s great! And so funny. Can’t wait for the day that everyone allows echother [sic] to be as they are, and we can all celebrate the insanity of being alive and wanting to be free.” There is freedom in Erlichman’s untangling. Using the very language used to tie her. Braiding it, hanging it up. “What they don’t want of me lives.”
There are also faces that turn, that really look. A nurse who breaks the rules to bring her out to the parking lot. A plumber who also has Bipolar disorder, to whom she wants to offer some domestic relic, that peace she always reaches for, the weight in her hand, weighing her down. “I want to slice a peach for him, or at least fetch a glass / of water so I do but as soon as I love him he is gone.”
My favourite recognition is a fictional, dilapidated cohabitation with Phineas Gage. Their cozy radius: the bed, the back porch, “the kitchen table at 3 am pouring another bowl of cereal.” Their simple nouns: microwave, blanket, the “washing machine, though he has nothing to wash.” He “strains spaghetti over the kitchen sink.” He “mindlessly pours pepper.” There is a carelessness to this comfort. To being shut in. The “cracked bedroom door, changing his shirt, blood caked to the back of his neck.”
She describes tenderly, but indignantly, too. Because this, their inside, means there is also an outside. Her friends ask how it is, as if life can ever be that alien, that much of a spectacle. Is it normal? (How can it be?) are the unspoken questions. Erlichman maneuvers around the “specter of shrapnel suspended above me,” and she writes, “Besides that, it is. The fan spins. A dog barks. His hipbone is his hipbone.” She plainstates their plainness. Fiercely. Yes, even a sick person’s plainness. Yes, even the plainness of a person with a metal rod staked in his skull.
Sure, a return to some normalcy is still a return, normal a word repeated so many times that it suddenly sounds made-up. Or it just sounds like what it is, which is a tongue’s trained undulation. So there is lucidity, too, to returning. A seeing of things for what they are. Red and orange. Green, blue. Indigo. Violet.
Domesticity is synonymous with togetherness, a someone to huddle under shelter with, even if that shelter is a homemade word. Erlichman imagines her someone, Lithium, as a human partner. A man “busy sauteing the greens,” maybe, or a woman who “eats everything with a pocketknife, don’t ask me how.” A “little lighthouse of they” who pours “cereal in a bowl before I even ask, drench it / in chocolate milk.” And, of all the possible fantasies, “How enchanting to be bored / together.” Socks pooling at your toes. Life pooling, quiet, at your feet.