Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage (APR/Copper Canyon Press), selected by Sharon Olds as the winner of the 2019 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, is a fractured gaze into a landscape rife with the rural extraordinary. Vantage is a fictionalized account of Bambrick’s time working on an otherwise all-male garbage crew. Things mostly mundane—garbage; bureaucracy; violence, especially violence against women—here fester into view as Bambrick polishes the story of a small Washington town into a portrait of contemporary America so clear and acute that it’s difficult to face directly.
The crew’s cast of characters is vibrant: Jim is a reluctant father figure; Ray, an alcoholic, hurls misogynistic abuse in what he seems to think is all good fun; Grayson wavers uncomfortably between menacing and sympathetic; the new female recruit with whom the speaker enters a relationship is a specter of newly realized queer desire; Park isn’t a lover until he is, and then he isn’t again. No one, including the speaker, is fully good or bad. Everyone is complicit in something. The speaker says it best herself: “Even now. I make it hard for me to blame me” (“Ownership”). The power dynamics at play here complicate what might otherwise be a fairly straightforward narrative; it’s neither that the speaker is a mere victim nor that she’s willingly perpetrating violence herself. She wants to prove that she’s an outsider in this world just as badly as she wants to fit into it. As Jim says in “Gaps,” “It goes both ways. None of it’s you, really. Just you in this place.”
Vantage is, above all things, a catalog of violence: violence against women, against animals, against the environment; the inherent violence of class and wealth disparity, of drug addiction, of assumption. Everything is dissected, carefully or otherwise—not just literal bodies (the “spine snapped” of a man in “Litter” or the “half a leg or a smashed face” of an elk in “Elk Splat”) but language and line itself. The real traumas of violence and witness, however, don’t preclude the book from having a sense of humor. In “Rules,” the speaker combines lust and disgust to describe the lengths to which she and Park went to avoid and simulate intimacy, with absurd affect:
Like when we… met a fisherman with a deep hole in his head left from brain surgery. How, after he dared us to put our fingers in, Park did because he knew I’d get something out of it—sweeping the fisherman’s hair open in the back. That was touching and not touching me. Describing. Making eye contact.
Sharon Olds, in the book’s introduction, refers to Bambrick’s mastery over a variety of crafts: “prose-poem; lyric; essay-poem; stretched lyric (with a lot of space and time—a lot of paper—showing through); off-rhyme, off rhythm, off-image; impeccable off-grammar.” The movements of these poems do often seem to refuse linear and grammatical logic. Consider the opening poem, “Litter,” with its uneasy enjambment:
I become a part of this garbage crew
empty cans along
the Wanapum pool.
Peel condoms off rock
beside fire pits—
call them snakeskins.
I learn quick.
Other poems (see “Exhibits: After the Dam Flooded the Town of Vantage,” “Reservoir,” and “Landscape, Comparison”) utilize emptiness on the field of the page to indicate that what’s missing is just as important as what’s mentioned. Though the ideas and images are fully realized, they feel somehow off-kilter, incomplete:
with the dam came
took forty hours to fill
a twenty-mile basin Unofficial
Mayor said we pried homes out &
built town again
What lives between the lines is erased in the act of telling. Ostensibly the whole story is here, but Bambrick’s speaker knows that one person can never tell the whole story, no matter how hard she tries, no matter how many secrets she knows. Speaking of secrets, “New Hire” physically creates the opposite effect; instead of drawing attention to what may be missing from a supposedly complete narrative, it erases itself. Using slashes, this poem censors the crew’s men, a lecherous chorus, from revealing what they actually intend to do with (or imagine about) the eponymous new hire:
Real fine heifer / low class beauty / what do you call those blonde
/ feathering / got yourself a new work buddy / not the only /
Victoria’s Secret / pulling plastic from the reeds / she walks like
she / begging /
Bambrick’s use of form and structure is troubled and subtle. Internal rhyme and meter pulse through “Unreported Incidents,” for instance, creating the sense that the aforementioned incidents are inescapable, yes, but not so patterned as to be predictable: “Ray spit in my hand. Motor oil / leafed on still water, and he spoke over me / saying I waver when I issue commands.” She’s a master of the ending slant rhyme as well: “Said if someone were here / with his daughter—standing by the flat / water, old blood on her baseball hat— / he would want him to tell her not to come back” (“Grave by the Lake”).
Every character in this collection pulses with a fear of failure: Failure to raise a child, failure to be raised, failure to save the river, the Earth. Failure to know those around you, or failure to remain comfortably unknown. “We can only save the river with our memory of what the river means,” says the speaker in “Sturgeon,” a moment of haunting realization: Memory is the only thing with the power to keep us going, the only thing powerful enough to make us stop.
Vantage is stunning, a true feat of language. It complicates what we think we know without ever turning away from its root—the destruction of our planet, our bodies, our selves. I would say this book sparkles, but that doesn’t seem right. It glistens like a trash bag in the rain.