Far from Usual and Better for It: The Layered Poetics of Allison Blevins’s Slowly/Suddenly

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It’s been weeks now since I first read Slowly/Suddenly by Allison Blevins, and I can’t get these poems out of my head or my body. I’m still riding Blevins’s cerebral/visceral teeter-totter, trying to balance on the fulcrum of her masterful, paradoxical slash.

On my flight home from the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in March, where I first met Allison and heard her read from this book, the woman sitting beside me on the plane gestured to my freshly annotated copy of Slowly/Suddenly and asked, “What’s that about?” I replied with something like:

So far I think it’s a meditation on confluence: Life is never just one thing happening at a time but many things happening all at once—overlapping events—and when we’re in the midst of our lives, we lose perspective on sequence, on tempo. Everything feels slow, as in gradual, but also sudden, as in never-could-have-seen-it-coming. This book shows how the slowness and the suddenness aren’t contradictions at all. Both tempos turn out to be true at once.

My seatmate didn’t ask me any more questions after that, but I kept thinking how many different ways I might have answered if she had. For instance: “This book is about the speaker’s imbricated families, her relationship with her ex-wife and her relationship with her current wife, the children she has with each, and the children they all inevitably share.” Blevins writes:

I’m in love with the idea of my wife, my ex-wife, all of my exes, too, really—
porcelain dolls tied together with string, their heads knackering together in my
attic boxes.

I might have said, “This book is about the speaker’s experiences with infertility, reciprocal IVF, and pregnancy simultaneously, and her experiences of motherhood and daughterhood, as in being a mother/having a mother, also simultaneously.” Blevins writes:

Later, we will imagine the children, latchkey, weeping
into a dish that sustains them. Some will die. We are all/ pro-choice, the doctor, the nurse, my wife. It is never

How else to watch what wants to divide? How else
to take the want from my wife’s body?

Blevins also writes:

should tell someone that each night when the baby wakes, I hear my mother’s
voice cry out my name.

Or: “This book is about the speaker’s recent diagnosis with MS, which brings about an unflinching examination of pain and a reimagining of her future—as person/lover/mother—in light of physical limitations.” Blevins writes:

Paresthesia: Heat is sharp. Water is paper. And the weight of you like a blanket
on my legs crushes the air from my lungs. Trace your finger up the inside of my
thigh. I am wet. Not like before. Not how you think or remember.

This is the trouble with aboutness: to say what something is about means always leaving something out.

Slowly/Suddenly is also about the speaker’s personal/familial struggles juxtaposed against the struggles of this particular cultural moment. “After the Inauguration, Everything is Portentous” and “Over One Million Acres of the Boreal Forest are Lost to Logging Each Year” are two poems in particular that link one speaker’s individual circumstances with our shared zeitgeist.

But then I also want to add that Slowly/Suddenly is about the speaker’s unique relationship to the art of Joan Mitchell (such unconventional ekphrasis!) as well as the speaker’s unique relationship to the reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians (even more unconventional ekphrasis!) Here’s another juxtaposition of what some would call “high art” and “low”: how the paintings made by one visual artist and the television episodes depicting one celebrity family inform our speaker’s complex consciousness. Blevins writes in response to the former:

Imagine a bridge.
Imagine a deer roadside. Imagine a hen trapped
inside a scaled mass that constricts
and slacks. Imagine a child waiting

like a leaf or a gum wrapper outside a store.

Blevins writes in response to the latter:

I am watching a woman pull her own child from her body […] Woman in a luxury car, on the back of a
motorcycle, pruning in the yard or tub. Folding.)

Of course each medium influences not just what Blevins is writing about but how she comes to articulate that content.

In poetry classes, I always encourage my students to start with the how: How has this poet arranged their book? How does this poet initiate readers to their speaker’s reality/ies? If my students are feeling stymied or shy, I might start by sharing some of my own observations and interactions with the text:

For instance, if we were discussing Slowly/Suddenly, I might point out how the title slash introduces—and challenges—expected dualities. Instead of this or that, the slash primes us to read the poems that follow with an eye toward oxymoron, the both/and of presumptive contradictions that are in fact not contradictions at all. Next, we’d notice how the slash doesn’t appear elsewhere in the book but instead establishes a lens for viewing aesthetic and thematic oxymorons that actually appear everywhere.

Slowly/Suddenly is presented as a diptych in the Table of Contents, perhaps mirroring Blevins’s commitments to other forms of art, but her poems’ progression from Part I to Part II is not a linear narrative, not a Before & After. Rather, the two sections are akin to tide pools eddying beside each other and sometimes merging into one large whirlpool. This structure echoes the frequently overwhelming simultaneities of the speaker’s life and of our human experience more broadly. Instead of Point A leading to Point B, the poems here cycle and recurse, toggling between and among their speaker’s remembered past, embodied present, and imagined future.

In the poem “On the days I think about my stay,” she writes:

On the days I think about my stay [title-qua-first-line]

in a mental hospital, my children say Mom,
and the word thorns [stunning use of noun-as-verb here] under the skin on my face,
stings, swarms my ears. Today, they shoot
bubble guns into tall grass. Bubbles
skim the feathered stalks, burst in a drainage ditch.

Here, all the hard ‘b’ and ‘g’ and ‘d’ alliteration makes the scene more poignant than it would otherwise be. The speaker’s stay in the mental hospital is in the past, is not something the reader is invited/permitted to witness firsthand, but that memory haunts the speaker in her present and is juxtaposed with the vivid “Today” of motherhood-in-progress. Our speaker is alive in this moment, and she is alive in memory, too. Time swirling around her, and time swirling inside her, endlessly eddying.

In “How it Feels to Unravel,” Blevins writes:

My life breaks my flesh
slowly apart, every word a loaded gun with no trigger.

Feel how active and consuming this image is, how current. She continues:

My sternum wants to crack from the cage,
to unravel. Push two fingers deep into the breast, try to numb the ache.

It’s telling that she uses “the” instead of the more personal “my” to refer to her breast, perhaps to signal her body is already becoming alien to her. Here, again, Blevins makes us feel her speaker’s lived reality deeply, corporeally. But at the stanza break comes her volta, with a speculative turn toward the future:

One day, my daughters will spoil: my inner voice will become theirs, we will
collect our female thoughts together like daisies: I am ugly. I am flawed.

 The future, while still far off and never truly knowable, is believably imagined, almost prophesied by our speaker. With two words—“One day”—she opens a portal of worry and sorrow. Her daughters, she predicts, will grow to internalize all the same misogynistic messages that our grown speaker has. However, the simile she chooses to convey those “female thoughts” conjoining is not something fearsome or loathsome, as we might expect. It’s surprising, perhaps a bit jarring—something sweet and hopeful as a flower—as daisies, in fact. Here we have another seeming incongruity that speaks to a deeper truth: even as this collection of thoughts is painful—“I am ugly. I am flawed.it is also part of what connects our present speaker and her present children to their future selves and to each other in that future. Even burdens can form bouquets in the world Blevins renders on these pages.

When you look closely at Blevins’s book, you can see her implicit slashes everywhere. It’s significant, too, I think, that slash is such a violent word—a word that reminds us of ripping and tearing, evocative of birth and rebirth, wounds and scars. The how of the slash resonates everywhere in the what of this volume.

I ask my students to choose a “heart poem” from every collection they read, and for me, the heart poem in Slowly/Suddenly is also one of the hardest poems to read—one of the most devastating and also one of the most essential. It’s called “How to Come of Age” and begins: “Rather than let blood from labia, inner arm or thigh—ritual separation of skin—let me become plainly, as a story:” The slashes are everywhere apparent in this language of split and rupture. Then, another hard pairing: “A girl and a man.” We can picture immediately their imbalance of age, physical strength, lived experience. We can feel the fraught imbalance of power between them. Blevins writes: “This story has never been told. This story is told every day.” Feel the slash there, too? The yoking of perceived opposites, like rubbing sticks and stones together to start a singular fire? That’s because Blevins’s words are always ablaze.

In this poem, the speaker becomes the story, and she becomes the adult woman remembering the girl:

Woman remembers the
man’s warm hand, how his fingers and palm formed
a bowl he poured her still hairless body into. His body
was warm beneath her and around her.

More yoking of perceived opposites, more fire: “her mouth is screaming, her mouth never opens.” The reader feels the powerlessness of the speaker as a child, and the reader feels their own powerlessness to intervene:

The child in this story learned the
wordless scream in the man’s basement, on the man’s lap.

The reader also recognizes the how. In order to show us how to come of age as a victim/survivor (for she is both at once) of sexual abuse, the speaker turns to third person: girl, man, woman, child, her: that crucial distance from the scene that allows her to tell this story. But then, in the final stanza of the poem, which is also a single long line, the speaker collapses all the distance she has made by invoking an equally crucial volta. She returns to first person, making the story undeniably personal, linking the past and present once again with this arresting and heartbreaking image: “I can’t look at my daughters without feeling his hand move between my legs.”

Blevins’s work resists summary fiercely, refuses to be boiled down to any single thing. Instead: the palimpsest of time. Instead: the kaleidoscope of consciousness. Instead: this, that, and the other concurring, colliding. This book is a collide-o-scope, in fact, that asks us to consider collisions of identity/relationships/conditions. This book remains the whole fire.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →