It’s hard to summate what Hannah Brooks-Motl has created with her latest collection of poetry, Earth (The Song Cave, 2019).
Earth doesn’t shatter convention or break from tradition in any radical way, nor do I believe that was the poet’s intention. Most of Earth’s poems live in neat stanzas and couplets, punctuating stretches of meditative calm with the occasional prescient monostich. The penultimate poems in the collection are a little more experimental in form, but even with erratic tabulation and generous line breaks, these poems flow like pure liquid, slowing the reader’s pace to the natural rhythms of the words (and, perhaps, the world) themselves. The collection feels resistant to forceful readings, due much in part to Brooks-Motl’s clear command of both lyrical phrasing and modern form.
At moments, Earth reads like a postmortem to language, bemoaning the loss of meaning to “the unreadable symphony / Of the routine” (“Ode”). In another poem, the speaker wryly notes “Apprentices instructing / each other / in mimesis” (“Going”)—a relatable observation for anyone who’s spent time in the literary academy.
Yet, Brooks-Motl never approaches the subject of language without an effervescent sense of self-awareness. In the “centerfold” poem, “Virtue Theory,” the speaker extends what reads as an ambiguous invitation, addressed duplicitously to both the reader and the speaker themself:
discard my metalanguage @ moments /
bring it to bareness
To me, these lines represent the unary theme of this collection—that is, the renegotiation of reality with the ever-growing abstraction of language. At the fundamental level of literary “bareness,” the poet is left with nothing to reference but material reality and personal memory, which come to constitute the majority of the collection’s subject matter.
The titles of the poems “Idyll,” “Ode,” and “Bucolic” are an obvious nod to poetic forms that employ this sort of “bareness” as a subject, while the poems themselves convey “bareness” with straightforward diction and metaphor. Lines like “These keys— / Explain me, individually” need little literary context to understand, yet remain viscous, perhaps due to their universal relatability. I, too, have keys, and these lines turn each key into a personal historiography of access with a quick twist of words. However, my keys can only “Explain me, individually,” sowing more questions about what analyses, what details, what observations have been lost to the boundaries of the poet’s disciplined focus on “bareness,” language at its most basic. Unburdened by the necessity for description or context, Earth’s manifold snapshots of rural America transcend their usual geopolitical frameworks to become objects of pure poetic tension. Earth is full of such lines, leaving just enough unsaid to jolt the imagination with possibility.
Readers may be tempted to read Brooks-Motl as an apolitical poet. But the more I re-read Earth, the more I see the politics—the dynamics of power—inherent in language come to surface. The poet, though maintaining distance from the extremities of our current political climate, is never disengaged or oblivious to the dialectic violences present in language. In one of the many poignant lines of “Virtue Theory” (making up 37 of the collection’s 95 pages) the speaker explains that
delusion itself is a hole filled with
language, somehow I arrived a little less to myself, less and less
Brooks-Motl recognizes that the mutability of language allows it to exist both as delusion and truth—and by this revelation, all self-definition, all self-designation comes to a crashing fall. The self becomes a referential object defined by its relations to definitions that are also always changing: society, home, family, poetry, memory.
What remains at this disjuncture of absolute definition and the self? Is it the politics of “I” versus “we”? Or maybe the politics of self-worth versus recognition? The poet stops short of prescribing an answer, instead sharing a moment of vulnerability with the reader:
a species of modernist thought, belief.
here’s a complication the perceived world can’t fill
me in on,
poem-wise, that sense of intimacy and death.
Whether the intimacy of death or the death of what was intimate, Brooks-Motl’s poetry is much more about the amalgamated “sense” than its individual subjects, searching for “politesse” between opposing forces with a calm, tempered eye. The results are often confusing, as admitted in the poem “Parable”:
However one approached time
time was touchy.
There was weakness,
shyness, wanting, dreams.
One’s truth won‘t work in dreams, or in
real life it‘s confusing.
The most mythic duet
Only by acknowledging the truly “mythic” qualities of language—particularly in the terrain of the sub-/un- conscious—can the poet hear a “duet” where others perceive conflict. Even amid squabbling factions, the grief of loss, and the rage-inducing failures of human intellect, Brooks-Motl stays ever the patient poet, as exemplified in these lines from “Through”:
I find myself outside their nuance,
leak away from all creeds.
What’s wrong with right here?
Satisfaction is a plain destination.
Earth is a remarkable specimen, not only for its lyrical prowess, but for its earnest posture. If it was the modernist’s duty to breach the abyss and the postmodernist’s duty to mock it, Brooks-Motl returns to the abyss to dwell in it, recording the details with sobering precision and tenderness. As we stand witness to darkening hours, facing an insurmountable violence against language, Earth reminds us all of the one question we often forget to ask: “What’s wrong with right here?”