Lisa Fay Coutley’s first full-length collection, Errata, looks at our most difficult and complicated familial relationships head-on: between a mother and a daughter, a daughter and father, a mother and her sons. Additionally present throughout the collection is the weight of an absent “you” who Coutley’s speakers continually direct love and attention toward. In “Coffee,” the speaker defines this absence as “something / I could climb, root by root & naked / while another woman’s hair still mapped / your pillow” (20). “Coffee” culminates in a similar fashion to “During the Final Scene,” in which the speaker claims in the final lines, “I said nothing” (23). Although the speaker may appear passive, she is not. She is the mother of two teenage sons and when the “you” appears again in “Sadly There Was No Dog Bite” the speaker is holding a gun:
Coutley’s speakers are human. At times they err remaining in a hurtful situation when they should leave. This is what makes her collection so poignant. We’ve been these speakers who are trying hard to please.
Divided into four sections, Coutley’s collection pulls at the thread of the complications of our growing lives, of the common thresholds we walk through: motherhood, parenthood, loss, grief, moving, growing up, and going it alone. Throughout Errata‘s progression, Coutley aims at each of these things beginning with the first poem, “Shooting Geese”: “At fifteen, a girl will crouch in the blind / until her toes go numb, eager / to prove her aim. It’s hard to know how far she’ll go” (3). What the speaker aims at changes throughout the collection, whether it be family, career, or something clear across the country that draws the speaker away from her father to the place where “tornadoes are the most violent / mothers,” the speaker still aims (“Goodbye in the Voice of My Father” 30).
Coutley’s speakers are often raw. It is hard, after all, leaving one’s place of security. It is hard, too, serving as someone else’s security. Coutley’s collection balances the speaker’s relationship with mother and father on one hand and the speaker’s relationship with her own sons on the other. In the poem, “On Home,” the speaker, honest and heartbreaking, regards her naive sons, stating, “someone should / tell these boys—in a wake of black mascara, / mothers drive away” (19). A hard lesson, it’s one which Coutley looks a number of times straight in the eye. Her descriptions are so clean and crisp the reader feels the true ice of such statements.
Errata is layered. Coutley’s speakers try to understand and cope—or at least to make it to the other side where the house isn’t on fire. There are plenty of moments of beauty and security, when the house actually is quite sturdy and within it is love. In “After the Fire,” Coutley’s speaker talks to her son who “hears his dead dog / breathing”; she tries to answer his question, “how will we find each other in heaven?” only to “sing a song / about wonder & stars to put him to sleep” instead (27). No one has all of the answers and Coutley’s collection recognizes this so much so it raises more questions. In “Twelve Days Scrubbing the Dead,” the speaker asks: “What is it that turns to vinegar / between a woman & her girl? / I have been angrier than ice” (42). These bold, true questions ring throughout Errata. At times, there is no answer. The past and the future remain quiet. And history repeats itself as the speaker “prepares [her] sons / for the relics of life” (“Family Portrait as the Language of Disaster” 52).
Coutley’s collection soars when the poems in which the speaker tries to teach her sons about life are buttressed against the poems in which the speaker herself is learning about life. This is the heart of Errata. Yes, parents occupy the role of “knowing.” But Coutley’s collection says, “we don’t always know.” Yet, her speakers do know. Often facing the past, her speakers draw on their own wisdom and experience. Asking these large questions is the first step to answering. In “Driving Drunk, & a Dozen White Crosses,” Coutley writes, “it will take years to learn she’s a room she drags / with her” (7). This heaviness and constant struggle is what the two sons have yet to learn: it is before them; it is before us all. Lisa Fay Coutley’s Errata pierces the only way truth can. Yet it is not all pain. The speaker confidently continues. She bounces back, as we all must. And so “Patientia” concludes:
we know, are built for falling. The last leaves
rustle, & from across the street,
lying in the arm of a tree, I know this is a new place.
I don’t know what I’m aiming for anymore,
but I know she still likes to aim.