In the third poem of Cara Dees’s debut collection, Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland, the boundary between shelter and threat is porous, with “half-sealed” exits and “buckled” north-facing walls. “News” has come to the speaker’s family farm, but the poem could be referencing an impending storm or the mother’s illness, mentioned in the title “Vigil for Another Onset.” Either way, the storm and onset coincide, so we understand that storm preparation is both an experience of chaotic anticipation—“Bluing, mute, we toured the storm, // heaved steaming water to the mares, / disquieted the stunned apple branches”—and a new kind of vigil for the dying mother. Time, space, and even the writing process are reconfigured by the mother’s death; throughout the collection, Dees explores the urgency of this changed landscape.
Dees is a friend and colleague in my PhD program, whose poems I admired in workshop for their attention to place and the complexities of grief. Set largely in rural Wisconsin and the Midwest, Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland rewrites the pastoral. At the farm where the speaker grew up and where her parents live, readers will recognize open fields, horses, the intensity of the sun, the importance of seasons, and time spent outside. But in Dees’s poems, each feature is transformed, defamiliarized: in the context of the mother’s difficult life and, more prominently, by the speaker’s loss of her mother. In “Before the Diagnosis, Spring,” the speaker describes the mother’s harmonic relationship with her garden “as if living things // spirited their sadnesses to you, / dead center in you, / who looms so small and strange in them.” The mother’s loneliness—which readers will connect to an unhappy marriage—is reflected in the stark blue of the landscape, “a total apartness absorbing blue field, blue atmosphere.”
Mentioned throughout the collection, blue becomes both pain and possibility. The speaker, as a child with a marble in her throat, is “muted and blued”; “the style [the mother] lived in” is described as “true-blue and jealous”; and the speaker dreams “of containing you [mother] in me, // of being a new blue grove / you could echo in.” This blue is striking in poems that often juxtapose light and dark, summer and winter. At times, the color seems almost too painful to look at, like the sun, and opposites collide in poems as if the world is breaking or has broken. But the strength of this speaker is in her ability to face loss head-on, and her memorialization of her mother is complex and requires self-reflection—at times, self-implication.
Dees’s speaker wrestles specifically with the idea of representing a loved one who has died. Many poems in the collection are written in second person to the mother or contain dialogue between the two; the intimacy of these strategies is at turns poignant, tense, and devastating. In a brilliant breaking of the fourth wall in “Halfway through the Book I’m Writing,” the speaker imagines the mother’s critique of how the speaker writes about her and says, “my words are larger / than the dirty / teeth & plead of poetry.” The poem—which is after Lynn Emanuel—returns agency to the mother who, in many poems, is so sick she can’t speak or understand speech. This and other scenes of encounter between mother and daughter demonstrate the irony of loss in these poems: the poem makes intimate dialogue possible, while also showing how communing together after death is impossible.
In the book’s third section, loss is compounded by trauma. The speaker first mentions her experience of sexual assault in “Now I’m a foregone conclusion, the voices in my head talk and talk…,” a poem that uses the language of storytelling and myth to describe the assault’s psychic aftermath. This strategy, which withholds personal details, gives the speaker a kind of armor against the double bind that female victims experience—“her mouth closed is a shameful thing; her mouth noising is worse”—and productively universalizes the problem of gendered violence. The three epistolary poems to current or future members of the Supreme Court that follow are revelatory. In these poems, the speaker acknowledges the “exact, exacting” power of the law over women’s bodies, described, in one instance in “To the Next Supreme Justice,” as
the film in which men lock an iron clamp into
a cow’s butterfly haunches & hoist her bodily
from her rank bed of straw; thus she rose more quickly
for their morning chores. A necessary pain.
Addressees of these poems, as well as readers, find a speaker whose powers of writing and of the mind challenge the status quo of male control over—and violence against—women.
Of the poetic strategies in this collection, the caesura stands out as a key representative of the book’s project. Multifaceted, the interruption of white space in many poems echoes the mother’s “glitching [heart]beat,” misunderstandings between mother and daughter, the boundary between life and death, the vast farmland, the body as it seeks to give language to grief, loss, and trauma. In Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland, Dees presents both silence and language—and the intersection of the two—as powerful, necessary expressions of loss.