Inspired by a photo time-stamped “07/14/04” of her great-great grandmother Elisabeth’s tombstone, Erin Marie Lynch writes in her poem “Live Stream,” “whoever in the flesh picked / the roses arranged them left them to be / preserved by chance at their most open.” In reading her formidable debut collection Removal Acts, I couldn’t help but feel that with these poems, she, too, has found a way (though not by chance) to be “preserved at [her] most open.”
Removal Acts traces the speaker’s pervasive sense of displacement back to its historical origins. Beginning with the Federal Act of 1863, which forced her Dakota ancestors from their homeland, Lynch charts the myriad ways this historical act of violent removal has permeated her familial relationships, her professional relationships, and, perhaps most combatively, the relationship she has with herself. In Removal Acts, there exists a parallel between the removal of her Dakota Ancestors and the speaker’s personal battle with bulimia and disordered eating.
The poems in Removal Acts possess a caustic lyricism – Glückian in their confrontational self-awareness, and docupoetic in their archival commitment. Her poetic predecessors include Muriel Rukeyser, Layli Long Soldier, and Zitkála-Šá, all referenced explicitly throughout the collection, but throughout the series of “Figure [?]” poems, Lynch subtly weaves in bits of language from other critical, cultural, and artistic collaborators such as Julia Kristeva, June Jordan, and Lauren Berlant.
Structurally, the book is broken up into two distinct sections: a single poem “Foreword” and an “Afterword.” In the foreword “To This I Come,” Lynch writes:
From boiled eggs, dry chicken, unsalted greens –
From the day I learn an uncle had spoken Dakota –
From telling my mother, who replied I never knew –
From this uncle, who died with no one to speak to –
From his grandmother, buried in Standing Rock –
From the .jpg of her headstone, carved with her
name, Elisabeth, and the years of her life –
From my stomach walls collapsing, night after night –
This reads at once as both origin story and a kind of poetic invocation – not only does Lynch set the stakes, but she also summons the necessary figures in order to begin. The title “To This I Come” implies an arrival on the part of the speaker who now seems ready to confront those forces that have obfuscated her from her sense of self, her family, and her history. As she writes in the first “Figure [?]” poem, “For a long time I worried all this was none of my business.” With “To This I Come,” Lynch makes it clear that “all this” very much is her business, her “claim,” her life.
The poems in “Afterword” vary widely in their rhetorical and aesthetic approach, but one common thread is Lynch’s interest in formal dexterity and visual innovation. For Lynch, it feels as though traditional poetic form, lineation, and stanzaic structure fail in their ability to adequately address the silences and absences produced by state-sanctioned violence. In her moves toward experimentation with layout and design, Lynch seems interested in how to embody those absences formally on the page. The experience of reading these poems feels inherently physical – as though they are purposefully returning you to your body, the body, which for this speaker not only symbolizes the space of her most personal “removal act,” but also exists in its most elementary form as a repository of knowledge.
With this “Foreword” and “Afterword” structure, Lynch omits the overt historical narrative that might make up that large and substantial middle-section of any book. This reclamatory act of omission decenters settler-colonial violence, which remains present, but just outside the aperture of Lynch’s gaze. What is central to her inquiries is not the recapitulation of this historical violence, but the present day recuperation of her ancestors, her familial history, and the deeply fraught relationship of the speaker to herself.
Central to Lynch’s remarkable collection are several matrilineal figures: Elisabeth, her great-great grandmother, and Lorena, her great-grandmother. These ancestral “mothers,” specifically Elisabeth, are the interlocutors whose histories Lynch examines to make sense of her own precarious present, and whose voices she seeks to reclaim. Much like the title of her poem “Epigenesis,” Lynch explores the ways trauma insidiously moves through families, passed down generationally, and how the state-sanctioned violence of the 1863 Federal Act, which removed Elisabeth from her homeland, can be traced through the actions of an abusive mother to the physical violence the present-day speaker inflicts upon herself.
Another essential aspect of this collection is the role of technology as an agent of both erasure and preservation. In the first of the poems titled “Removal Act,” Lynch visually explores how the website of the British Museum restricts access to downloading the “original version” of a portrait of her “grandfather’s grandfather (great great great),” Mato Sabi Ceya. To embody this technological and archival erasure, a large white rectangle with the words “USING THIS IMAGE: SORRY, THIS IMAGE IS NOT AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD” impedes the reader’s experience of the text of the poem, which narrates the fraught reasons why the portrait was taken in the first place, and why the original ended up in the hands of The British Museum, while the descendants of Mato Sabi Ceya are left to “screenshot the image, print it with shitty inkjets.” In the very next poem though, “8.5 x 11,” technology functions as a means of broader ancestral connection. “Today we learn / to say who we are / in Zoom Dakota class.”
Perhaps the role of technology bears no greater weight than in the book’s final poem, “Screenshots.” With the epigraph, “findagrave.com, database and images, memorial page for Elisabeth “Lizzie” Bercier Majhor,” Lynch uses the images found on this website as a way to close the gap in time and space between herself and Elisabeth. The technological archive in this instance allows her to write into and represent (however ethically compromised, as Lynch herself is well aware) the final moments of Elisabeth’s life, “[Now Herself]//[Digitized].” In “Screenshots,” Lynch elegizes for the first time not only the loss of Elisabeth, but what Elisabeth’s death signifies – the loss of a family’s ability to know one another, and Lynch’s own ability to know herself.
The book’s closing gesture solidifies the many prior acts of removal around a new, singular, visual removal act. As referenced in the poem “From the Archive of American Object Lessons,” Lynch writes, “2020 – I set up a tripod and record myself putting on the dress and taking it off, over and over. Watching the footage, I’m startled by how much I look like her.” With the final four pages of the book, Lynch offers still images from this specific recording in which she is taking off her great-grandmother Lorena’s Camp Fire Girls “ceremonial gown,” constructed at an “outdoor girls camp in Vermont” and “meant to resemble traditional clothing of plains Indians.” In this final act of removal, Lynch at once venerates and unburdens herself from the weight of her ancestors, while simultaneously emphasizing the certain and unerasable fact of her body.
Erin Marie Lynch has written a stunning debut that transcends the genre-expectations of a “first book” to offer something more erudite, ambitious, and virtuosic in scope. As a collection, it possesses the emotional, formal, and intellectual maturity of a poet working at the height of her craft. With Removal Acts, Lynch closes what has for so long remained an open psychic wound, and now asserts, not with a backwards gaze, but a forward one: “[To future forms]/[I leave myself].”