Every once in a while, I find myself reading a book at exactly the right time for me to be reading said book. Call it synchronicity or coincidence or chance or luck—whatever it is, it is a wonderful thing. To hear echoes of my own life in someone else’s makes me feel more connected, less alone. I had an inkling as soon as I saw the cover of The Year of What Now, Brian Russell’s award-winning debut collection of poems, that this would be such an instance of fortuitous timing. After having had two surgeries in thirteen months, seeing an arm with an IV taped to it made my own arm tingle.
The poems within The Year of What Now (how the title precisely encapsulates the way one feels at the end of an emotionally-taxing sickness or injury!) tell the story of a woman being diagnosed with, suffering from, and eventually recovering after an illness, as experienced by her husband, our narrator. And while my own surgeries never required an overnight stay in a hospital and weren’t life-threatening, there is something universally awful about feeling like one’s body is an enemy, or an other, and that something is made tangible by these poems.
There are poems here that make the reader feel like he or she is staring at a portrait of a hospital (albeit an animated one). In “The Long Haul,” Russell captures the mood and the routine of the hospital, as well as its separateness from the world outside:
like a rundown roadside diner the hospital
cafeteria is as always half filled with
newcomers eating alone in total
silence the uninspired fare haphazardly
arranged on hot sterile plates soon enough
they’ll come to find the pink and pale
green motif is a virus that hijacks the
appetite’s machinery and shuts it down
those of us in the know venture out down the
road to the Ponderosa where the food is equally
inedible but the noise my god is deafening
the wonderfully obnoxious families their
lavish celebrations of every minor occasion
The poem is short but packed with charged details, and is in that regard emblematic of the writing throughout the book. The hospital becomes a living organism. In “For Good,” the narrator talks about what happen after-hours, “just after the last/shift change for the night”:
that’s when the ambient noise of this
place separates into discernible tones
that rise to the surface of consciousness splintered
bits of a sunken ship first the sporadic
chirps from the legion of machines that keeps
everyone alive somewhere down the hall a man
coughs violently than abruptly
The poem ends with the sounds of “the steady clack of keys” and “heels down a long empty hallway” as nurses go about their work. The hospital is depicted with clarity but also with emotion. We are given images of the patients, the visitors, the staff and the medical equipment, all of which make of the sum total of the hospital.
So yes, there is a clear narrative trajectory along which the poems in The Year of What Now exist. And yes, if you’ve spent any time at all in a hospital, you will find Russell’s rendering of one quite on the mark. But you needn’t have spent time in a hospital nor endured an illness to find meaning in these poems. While specific on the surface, the themes within The Year of What Now extend well beyond sickness and hospitals. Russell continuously moves between the particular context of the narrator’s story and the big-picture implications, sometimes giving us both at once. The title poem, found near the beginning of the book, ends with these poignant lines:
are we the pure products and what
does that even mean pure isn’t it
obvious we are each our own culture
alive with the virus that’s waiting
to unmake us
The narrator is speaking to his wife’s doctor about infectious disease and then ruminating on the conversation, but Russell is speaking to the human condition itself.
While the subject matter is heavy, The Year of the What Now is infused with a sarcastic sensibility that keeps the writing from teetering into sentimentality. In “Disproving the Humors,” the narrator shows up at his wife’s room to find her “sprawled across the bed” with her “left leg dangling,” her “arms limp” and her eyes open, tongue lolling. He stands over her, wondering (along with us readers) if she is gone. He asks her to stop joking, to blink or move, but she doesn’t until, “a young man arrives/with breakfast.” Then the wife rises “from the dead” and says, “are you kidding me pancakes again” The husband and reader alike are both relieved and repulsed by the wife’s joke.
The structure of the book cleverly mirrors the structure of the wife’s illness. Careful attention is paid to spacing and pacing. Lines are broken perfectly. That this is Russell’s first collection makes the confident crafting all the more impressive. And yet, for all of the flawless poetics at play, it is the feelings evoked by The Year of the What Now that most struck me. I folded down page corners and underlined lines—this is a book to be revisited, to be reconsidered. There is a philosophical reckoning undertaken in these poems that can’t be fully grasped in one sitting. Nearly halfway through the book sits my favorite poem, “What Makes It Worse.” The poem begins:
what you don’t know can hurt you
what you don’t can turn your body
what you don’t know is
what are the odds of that
you don’t know
And who hasn’t sometimes been in the place of not knowing but of needing to know? The Year of the What Now simultaneously comforted me and made me uneasy; like most accurately told stories, this one isn’t simple. But within its complexities we find simple truths, and through the questions it raises we may indeed find answers worth searching out.