Do Not Rise by Beth Bachmann
Beth Bachmann’s second book, Do Not Rise, interrogates war and its remainders. The poems are terrifying and complex—the words seem to loom in every part of the room long after you read them. Unlike her first collection, Temper, a sort of murder mystery uncovering the coordinates and details of Bachmann’s sister’s death, Do Not Rise is purposefully unmoored by particulars. It is abstract in the strongest way, revealing something intrinsic and unrestricted, theoretical and affecting, something without concrete instantiation.
In Do Not Rise, there are echoes of the Iraq wars; for example we read a poem called “oil,” we are invited into many scenes of thirst and heat, and we recognize that “shock and awe” tactics are ever- present. Yet there is also a transhistorical interrogation of war: army manuals, snowy fields reminiscent of World War One, and lines from Wilfred Owen’s letters home. At the same time, we are reminded of the technological anonymity of today’s warfare: “A hundred hummingbird drones touched/ to nectar… If dead could be one thing over and over, this and this.” There are also the comforts of home supported by this warfare: poem called “garden and gun” references the contemporary American lifestyle magazine about the “soul of the South.”
Bachmann’s book focuses on the remainders of this warfare, the aftereffects. The poems are full of dead horses, scorched landscapes, and unattached limbs. Forgotten pets, neglected yards, and unclaimed livestock haunt the pages. Flowers bloom out of dead bodies. And the poems are buzzing with the post-trauma of catastrophic events, even as these events continue.
Perversely, Do Not Rise is also a collection of poems about romance, or about the unstable and fierce relationships formed during violent crisis. The title line, “do not rise,” comes from an aubade by John Donne. In Donne’s poem, the speaker tries to convince his lover that the only morning light is in his eyes, that the breaking is not the day, but his heart if he has to leave his lover. The “I” of Bachmann’s Do Not Rise, likewise needs to be loved and needs to be broken—the I desires to be “entered,” “nailed to a tree,” and ultimately “forgiven.” Through the transference of violence into sex we experience the libidinal aspects of armies, war zones, hostages, and ultimately the fallen. As the poem “master, master” ends, “the soldier is both brute and champion” here. The violence is glory and it is animal—Bachmann implicates us in this fact, the I is desirous of it. And this is perhaps the similarity that Do Not Rise shares with Bachmann’s pervious collection: both books make us feel implicated somehow in the act of excruciating violence. The poem “unspeakable” claims:
Two things that cannot be must be
first stone, then star. Mother of all monsters, father of all monsters, why
did you make me thus: tireless fox? Dog that eats whatever it wants,
unbeatable beast, at least we have the sky nightly, a view
of the whole battle. God cannot survive here.
He demands to be named. Unknown soldier, you hardly say you love
me but you love me like the ice
the orchid takes slowly in its turning toward light.
In a garden, every bloom is somatic. I thought you wanted fire.
You want peace. You’re facing a wall.
I am a species only you can claim.
God here is the lover, the soldier, the father, the owner, and the unknown. By the end of the poem, the “unknown soldier” is the very abstraction or anonymity of the poems, their violence and horror, but also the sexiness of them. The “I” is surely the speaker, claimed by the soldier, by this horror that has fragmented, traumatized, and warped her. But the I is also the I of the lyric in situations like this—claimed by her reader “you”—begging to be received. Thus, though this soldier demands to be named, he will not be named. To give particulars would fracture the very possibility of Bachamann’s lyric I. The violence is everywhere and the response, Bachmann shows us, is to be the “tireless fox” on the blooming battlefield. To explore, to eat what we want, hoping only that the experience be perhaps nourishing to someone else, like ice for an orchid.
The poem “psyops” is also a sort of ghoulish Dickinson-esque love story, this time between the snowy field and the dead who fell there, and it is one of my favorite poems in the collection. It ends with this gorgeous insight:
The reader is not unlike the killer: you could be
anyone. Beauty is futile.
Our method for approaching Do Not Rise is as a sniper or a spy. These lyric poems allow us the heart, the center, without allowing us specificity or identity. Despite the fact that we sometimes have “a view of the whole battle,” we, like the assassin, and the hostage alike, could be anyone on the field. Surely, as “psyops” reminds us, these difficult, glistening lyrics offer up beauty but do not offer results, possibility, or direction. This is true no matter how hard we look for it. For example, the poem “revolution” thrilled me with its name. Yet it is about slow movement, about morphing war continuing: “The clouds go/ on moving; thus, weather: anvil horsetail, blood clot/ above marsh, wood, field.” The hint of rupture in the poem comes with an entreaty to “take the flower first.” These are difficult instructions to follow, knowing that more of the same violence comes next. The revolution here is permanent, but not necessarily political— the revolution consists of the consciousness of combat, and it perversely offers us beauty.
In an interview for The Rumpus, Bachmann made connections between this collection and the trauma of contemporary gun culture in the United States. The poems do something different than mourn mass shootings, or critique state violence, yet both grief and analysis function in the book. By making violence this abstract—here and also there, now and also then, terrifying and also seductive—Bachmann shows us the way we are not just surrounded by violence, but also how we live on violence, and how we have metabolized it.