Let’s All Die Happy
University of Pittsburgh Press 2017, 112 pp., $15.95
The poems in Let’s All Die Happy by Erin Adair-Hodges are consistently and consciously aware of breath, and their process of breathing is often labored and the poems struggle to hold air for very long. At times, the visceral reaction and diction almost seems a little too on the nose for the work (I lost track of how many times I saw the words “lungs” and “blood”), but this forces the reader into the same space of vibrant and disquiet anxiety that the poems jitter in on the page. And it is this twitchiness, this threat of flight, that encourages the reader to keep moving forward even when the tension fades away for a poem, or two, or three.
That ebbing of tension sounds like negative criticism. I may have originally intended it to be, but that changed as I neared the close of the book’s second section. Emptiness, particularly a feeling of void left where others expect one to find fulfillment, is vital to the tragedy of these poems, and the emotional space that is forced open between poems is essential to allowing the poems to communicate this lack of fullness. For a work grounded in the tensions of womanly domesticity, this is unsurprising. I largely found this collection to be emotionally unsurprising; however, this lack of surprise is overcome by skillful wordplay and a conscious awareness of putting form to its best use. The common and expected language serves a larger purpose that becomes clear as the collection develops.
The first segment of the book tiptoes back and forth over the line of being dull. It’s not that the poetry itself is dull or poorly constructed—quite the opposite—but the first few poems strike at the same emotional chord. Later, the poems begin to wiggle up against one another to form an intentionally shaky and haphazard foundation, and the language works harder to secede from convention. The result turns humble language into a knowing smirk and a slow nod of self-awareness.
This book is witty—Adair-Hodges proves her ability to tie common phrases into awkward knots that transform colloquialism into playful linguistic teases several times over her poems. This mischievous romp with language is perhaps most apparent in “The Jennifer Century.” This delightful poem challenges American ego by juxtaposing self-grandeur against the origins of the common American name: Jennifer. I’ll admit I may have some bias—I’ve always maintained a special love for manipulating the names of states into action words since reading Nickole Brown’s poem “Black bird, red wing.” Coupled with my current geographical location, the lines “Take instead the all-American sound / of Jennifer. Feel how it Kansases / in your mouth, a flat rectangle of democracy” tickle me in a particularly pleasing way. I am charmed from the first line to the last.
My favorite poem from “Let’s All Die Happy,” at least at the time that I am writing this review, is “The Robin Tanka.” Again, I’ll acknowledge that I have a bias, this one toward longer poems broken up into smaller image-centric sections. But how can anyone resist a poem that begins, “Shit on a shingle”? The poem takes full advantage of its form, a sequence of tankas, to develop a coherent and evocative narrative that delivers itself in quick punches of imagery that refuse to hold themselves back. With the clear use of white space in between each section echoing the fading of the speaker’s mother, the poem not only stands strong on its own, but also serves as the titular poem of the book’s overarching themes. After this, if you don’t “get” these poems, then you might not connect with Adair-Hodges’s work here.
As the winner of the 2016 Agnes Lynch Starett Poetry Prize and published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Let’s All Die Happy falls into a reader’s hands with high expectations. For me, these expectations were met in terms of poetic craft, but the thematic undertones and overtones of motherhood fell flat; however, I’m interested in seeing what Adair-Hodges’s next book looks like, and how her work transforms over time.