If Danielle Hanson’s Ambushing Water (Brick Road Press, 2017), a collection of 50 short poems and a finalist for the Brick Road Poetry Prize in 2015, may be said to have a theme, it is one of reversal. Rather than nature’s astounding the speaker, it is she who takes nature by surprise. This idea is implicit in several of Hanson’s poem titles: “Eating His Dead Wife,” “The Bird Eats a Building,” The Man is Walking His Bird on a Leash [sic]. Also evident is a return again and again to particular tropes: bird, tree, corner, as well as notions of eating, of insects and bodies of water of varying kinds, and a host of things stuck, stilled, stoppered, or morphed. Further, there are connections in syntax. Reflexive verbs proliferate as do orderings that echo William Carlos Williams’s “Plums.” “I was just calling to tell you” Hanson begins “Home Sick”; and “so inviting and strange” she concludes “The Killed Bug.”
These echoes in the form of reoccurring words, language patterns, and ideas link the poems and hold the work together. Several times connections between poems are tight enough to suggest they should be read side by side, or even collected under a single title. “The bird … begins to close up like a tulip … tucking under and into her body … The beak is next” Hanson tells us in “Bird.” In “French Recipe” she continues: “folded tightly and pushed into beak. / The bird takes several days to digest itself.”
Another incidence of poems that could be contiguous involves two of the perhaps three Shoah-themed works:
the slingshot boys
shattered the streetlight,
darkness has been collecting
bits of itself
into a lonely corner … (“Bad Boys”)
Time is thrown
into fire, smoke
caught in air …
weight pulling down,
flames rising up. (“Still”)
Some of Hanson’s pieces stand well in comparison with much of contemporary poetry. “Tonight I can write the saddest lines,” a title she takes from Neruda; “Lily”; and the final poem, “Saying Goodbye to a Friend,” may all hold their own among peers. And Hanson often begins well, as with the enjambment: “Outside the moon/is erased/by a cloud —”
Other works, however, lose us in redundant last lines. The somewhat forced “It’s Late Autumn and the Few Leaves Left Clinging to the Tree Beg to Be Pulled Off” would read better without the too-clever final line pair:
The Indian mound-builders from set thirty-seven brought it.
Even without ever seeing the film, they know bad acting [sic].
“I Have Other Things on My Mind” and “Lemon Breast of the Virgin Mary” would similarly benefit from cutting final lines. Closing words in any genre are among the toughest, most challenging to write. Frequently authors compose last lines first, and work toward them, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did — I surmise — in The Great Gatsby. Losing such favorites, especially lines on which one builds an entire composition, hurts. I have encountered this challenge myself and understand Hanson’s dilemma.
Some of her poems need only a word or three culled from a closing line. “Snake,” for example, ends “her hair reaching the creek, winding back,/a bridge of hair between us.” Hanson does not need the repetition of “hair.” Good poetry is all muscle and bone. There is no fat, no room for repetition. Every word must contribute to the meaning, must have a clear function we can explain. There are many lines in the book Hanson could improve by omitting the word the. Consider “Silk Spinner” without the except where it is necessary to complete the meaning, in first position, line two:
He is a human spider,
the way he wraps the silk
around anything that will hold it:
the chair he reads in at dusk,
the threads disappearing
in and out of the light.
He winds around tiny trees,
like his late wife.
He is winding her
around the porch posts,
around the light itself and the wind
when it’s blowing
and the stillness when it’s not.
A related question is about Hanson’s many birds who she never, not once, identifies by species. I tested some lines aloud to see if it were a matter of sound. I also gave thought to syllabation. However, there are birds whose names take up only one syllable: thrush, chough, grebe. Perhaps what’s important is the calling-out from poem to poem, or maybe readers should conclude specifics are not relevant. I felt the lack, however. I wanted to know what kind of bird.
A final note concerns caution with grammar. Of course, there are times when we must eschew correctness in order to retain authentic voice. I will not belabor the point with examples as we know this principle well. Generally, writers avoid the passive as a weak and evasive structure, and I question some of Hanson’s use of it. Furthermore, we often choose against street language in preference for less class-bound words even though there are good arguments in their favor. My mother expressed the sentiment thus: “She wouldn’t say shit if she had a mouthful.” Translation: Sometimes the four-letter word is the only right word for the occasion. But broken grammar that’s inadvertent, a mistake, can trash a strong piece of work. “Horse Tracks,” an otherwise fine poem, is marred by employment of the simple past rather than the conditional: “What if there was a place.” “The Break Up” has pronoun difficulties throughout, the most striking the repletion of this attempting to carry an idea on its own, a word that for clarity, for the most part, must be followed by a noun: “this being written … This has … this could …” Most painful of all is the misconjugated to lie in “The Stuffed Dog:” “a sadness that can never lay down.”
Despite these criticisms, I enjoyed Ambushing Water and will read it again. The mistakes that we make and that others point out to us are part of learning the craft. I have made them. Anyone who knows me well will tell you: I am a contender for Worst Speller Among English Majors.
Hanson is a talented writer whose peak is still ahead.