Rebecca Lehmann’s collection, Between the Crackups, is a glittering, furious book. Many of its poems inhabit a childhood world full of violence and anger. Others showcase adult voices that range in tone; they are frustrated, sorrowful, sometimes funny, sometimes contemplative. The book’s three sections are formally varied. Lehmann writes sonnets and other short, tightly constructed poems, as well as several prose pieces and long sequences.
The first section, “The Devil Is In Detroit,” is dominated by violent imagery and childlike voices. These speakers are as gleeful and terrified as grade school kids muttering curse words for the first time. We have lines like “We call them brats, and mean it” (The Youngest Girls in Memphis), “I have a frontal lobe named Fuck You” (The End of the World), and the epistolary sequence titled “Letters to a Shithead Friend.” Lehmann defends this language and the subjects she chooses by asking later in the book, “Why should anything be inappropriate?” (“Something Very Woman”)
But there is more at stake in these poems than name-calling. Lehmann attends to music, making imagistic and emotional connections that broaden the range of that language. In the sonnet “Muster Lovely,” we have “muck-skimmed pond,” “finger-fuck slut,” and “children / screaming in the summer dusk.” In most of these poems, the voices, however petulant, cry out in a power struggle that’s already lost. When the managers in “The Factory, an elegy in six parts” say “ass- wipe” and “cunt rag,” the words are emblems of the power these characters have over the exploited workers.
The first poem in the book, “A Hundred Words for Loser,” is one of the most successful. This tightly crafted sonnet sets a tone both disturbing and musically forceful. The first lines dance with internal rhyme: “Dear glove-puppet, you should come here; / It’s grey and everybody hates you.” The poem introduces the themes of sexuality and exploitation that spread through the book. A man tells a bible story of incest, in which two daughters’ “syphilitic shadows / slink across the ceiling tiles.” The next lines move us from the story to a back alley and address the “you” of the first lines: “Some suitor you are— / hey pussyfoot, hey horn-ball.” The poem is full of deft shifts. It ends with the surprising “Hey stupid, / bring me dead things and a flat stomach.”
The world of this poem is ugly, and Lehmann offers us no comfort. Instead, she makes us listen—and because of the music, she makes us want to. Of the girls in the bible story, the poem asks, “…who cares / about the movements or their hidden girly ribbons? / They collect, but don’t worry; they stink /of sulfur and twist.” We are told not to worry, not because the girls will be okay—they won’t—but because it’s too late, or they’re not worth the bother.
“The Factory” is one of the book’s several long sequences, and the most haunting. Here Lehmann creates a world of power striated between managers and workers. Despite its brutality, the poems have the otherworldly tonal quality of a children’s story, a fairytale or myth. The workers lament their exploitation and hopelessness. The first part in the sequence begins, “The managers are giving silver dollars to our children, / are telling them that if they are good, they can have our jobs / once we’ve died.” The workers in the poems watch their children file past the windows while they are trapped inside and subjected to the managers’ offhand dehumanizing cruelty. In the sixth part of the elegy, “Memo to All Workers,” the managers dictate orders: “You will not get headaches. / You will practice reverence, and it will flood / you like coolant.”
“Letters to a Shithead Friend,” another long sequence in the book, is less ambitious. The title is emblematic of the project as a whole: a voice wounded and angry, and not afraid to show it. Here the fury is a response to a failed relationship and the struggle to regain a sense of autonomous self. “Mostly I am writing angry poems,” the letter writer says. Lehmann plays around here, which is fun to read, but some of the words and images seem arbitrary: “He says Sidecar, tomato, bulgur-wheat, bumblebee” and “I am a tiny communist with sunburned shoulders.” Despite its charm, this poem lacks the power found elsewhere in the book, in part because the rhythm slackens. Nonetheless it’s full of great lines. The simple statement, “I am cleaner than you,” contains the force of the entire poem.
In the second and third sections of the book the horror and threat are at bay, and the poems have a chance to move around a little. Lehmann’s range expands when she gives herself some space, allows emptiness into her poems. In “The Poem is the Story 2,” Lehmann writes, “The idea was to write something very quiet and subtle, / but then we were playing Oh Hell again at the kitchen table, /and out popped a poem with a curse word.” The straightforward quality of this voice is welcome. Its humor and self-awareness provide an access point that the tight and shiny sonnets can repel. The poet reveals herself as human and warm.
The poems in these sections are located geographically in the South and Midwest, and in dreamscapes and pastoral landscapes. If the first section is like a child calling names in the schoolyard to hide her own terror, the latter parts of the book dispense with the name-calling and brutality, and tremble in an uneasy companionship with loss. Things are a little calmer, as though the girls’ hair ribbons in the first poem have already unraveled: “Someone has sent a letter and someone has returned a letter. / We were hanging out on the front porch when it happened.” The bells we hear in “Ten Bells Tell” are “Not signaling apocalypse.”
At her best Lehmann exhibits a depth of sympathy and uncertainty paired with keen observation. Take the beautiful last line of “The New Town,” a poem straightforward in its loneliness and grounded in a real winter landscape: “The frozen sheen is a cheetah made of light; it will catch us, if we run.”
As a whole, this diverse collection is tonally overshadowed by the first section. If you read a bunch of poems that say “cunt” in them, it’s easy to overlook the tender, quieter poems of the second and third sections. And that’s a shame because there is much in them that deserves attention. Despite these issues with tone and juxtaposition, Between the Crackups is a strong and risky first collection, and worth reading. In “The End of the World” Lehmann writes, “I wanted to sing a song that had emotional register.” Plenty of times, she does.