Why I Chose Shira Erlichman’s Odes to Lithium for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club


About halfway through the poem “89 Lines on a Bruise,” Shira Erlichman writes: “My bruise returns to chat no matter how hard I try to leave / illness out of this, which is what’s been suggested after all // by gatekeepers: But why so many poems about it?” This is the kind of question that’s been asked by gatekeepers about any subject that they deem uncomfortable, from sex to race to racism to abortion to menstruation to queerness—this list could go on forever. This has everything do with who the gatekeepers have been, historically, and often still are (though that’s changing a little).

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Odes to Lithium, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Shira Erlichman, you’ll need to subscribe by August 15!

Back to the gatekeepers: This is a mirror of sorts to what’s happened in American politics and society over my lifetime. Marginalized groups speak out about their marginalization and demand a seat at the table. The people at the table react patronizingly, if at all. They ask questions like, “Why do you always have to make it about xxxxx?” They never cede space, and when members of marginalized groups create new spaces for themselves, the people at the table complain that those spaces are lesser or even illegitimate, and eventually cast themselves as the victims, as the new marginalized community. I saw this during my childhood in the 80s when a common reaction to affirmative action policies from the white men in my working-class community was to argue that they were now victims of discrimination, and I see it now in the poetry world when poets argue that being black or Latinx or queer or a woman or disabled means one has a leg up when it comes to publishing poems or winning prizes or finding jobs even if the poetry is sub-par. It was a shit argument then, and it’s a shit argument now.

Shira Erlichman’s debut collection is a deeply personal look at the relationship its speaker has with the medication that, quite literally, keeps her alive and functioning. The poems within this collection deal directly with mental illness and the impact it has on the speaker’s relationships with her family, with the doctors who treated her, with her friends, and with herself. The poems are visually inventive (a number of illustrations accompany poems and play off of them). The poem “On This End” reads like two fractured letters between daughter and mother, and it feels at first like you’re reading mixed-up, incomplete thoughts, only to discover that the poem has been ordered in reverse. Once you realize this, you find yourself with multiple entry points into the poem—and a more complex look at this relationship.

Another poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Phineas Gage,” borrows from Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and focuses on an early case studies dealing with traumatic brain injury. But where Stevens’s poem is austere, Erlichman’s is thick with detail and narrative, and the relationship she imagines with Gage is fascinating.

But the book is titled Odes to Lithium, and it’s the speaker’s relationship to lithium which ties this collection together. An ode is a lyric poem addressed to a particular subject, and very often there’s a praising nature to it, and so I turn to this poem titled “Postscript to Mania” to close this piece. Here are its final lines:

It’s not easy dying
without dying. Before I ever took the pills
I took so much. So much was taken. I’m
done. I’m here. A fish thrown back
to the river can’t help but swallow fistfuls
of self.

The tension in those lines: the play on “took,” the juxtaposition of “I’m done. I’m here,” the artfulness of the final image of the “fish thrown back” and given a new lease on life—these all point to an artist in full control of her craft. There’s nothing easy about these poems, in their reading or in their creation, and that makes them worth exploring in greater depth.

I hope you’ll join us in the Rumpus Poetry Book Club as we discuss this book together, and then later in our conversation with Shira Erlichman as part of our exclusive author chat series.

I want to explore all of this with you, and I hope you’ll join us in the Rumpus Poetry Book Club in September as we read and discuss Odes to Lithium, first together and then with Shira Erlichman in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by August 15 to make sure you don’t miss out!

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →