Devastation. Conflation. Preoccupation. Disintegration. Joseph Harrington’s Things Come On (Wesleyan UP) is a book about loss; it’s also a book about what lingers. Coupling details of the Senate’s Watergate hearings with his own mother’s battle against cancer, Harrington’s “amneoir” crosses lines between public history and private confession, memory and the dismantling of memories.
The book is presented in two sections: Investigation and Resignation. The “terrible rage” triggered by a mother’s cancer and a President’s malignant behavior, preoccupy the poet and conflate:
Brutal irony triggers a terrible rage. Nixon for us had always been the cancer, the cancerer. In America, some one must be to blame. Someone must die, not always the same one. How create a poem or polity where the physical is not a trope?
Nixon betrayed a nation’s expectations. In the same year, a mother, dying, betrayed her son’s. Harrington, in turn, betrays expectations of what poetry can and should be, crafting a mash up of lyric lines, excised letters, Senate hearing transcriptions, conversational speech, chilling photographs, medical records, and personal observations. As the Senate did for the Watergate Hearing, Harrington seeks explanations, substantiation, evidence, but it’s as if, in the end, the best way to cope with loss is to reconstitute all boundaries.
Things Come On is, among other things, a book about coping. Harrington writes, “In order to advance, you begin the next list:” and then he begins the next list. Among other things, Things Come On is a book of lists. Lists of memories. Lists of forgotten moments. Lists that include the mother’s shoe size, slip size, girdle size, gown. Explanations for why he remembers so many of the details of the Watergate hearings. Lists of reasons a woman may or may not break down in the face of unassailable loss. Lists of exercises to help address the pain (which pain? whose pain?) Lists that indicate ways and means of hurting. “The Desperate Making of Lists.”
These lists are one of the book’s organizing principles. He calls this “an amneoir,” a combined system of a memoir and amnesia. I’m as interested in what he remembers as what he forgets. I’m as interested in why he remembers as why he forgets. Things Come On grapples with how to write about personal loss in a time of more global devastation. It asks, conversely, how to write about global devastation in the face of personal loss. How can a person continue if his/her preoccupations are of little to no interest to anyone else? “A majority of viewers responded by saying they were ‘tired of Watergate.’ We kept watching as though we couldn’t help it.” One of the many sets of criterion for how we choose books for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club is that a given selection can sustain online discussions for a month without our members growing “tired.” Things Come On ought to fit this bill.