By Laura McCullough
Alice James Books, 2011
Reviewed by Kaite Hillenbrand
Laura McCullough’s Panic is a collection of thematic narrative poems presented in three stages of grief: “Panic,” “Virus,” and “What Breathes.” Another outstanding offering from Alice James Books, Panic has received praise from Mark Doty, Kathleen Graber, Michael Collier, and Andre Dubus III. With cover art that perfectly reflects the tension, emotional disorientation, and yes, panic invoked in this collection, we feel this is a powerful, complete, and effective new book by the author of Speech Acts, What Men Want, and The Dancing Bear.
Throughout Panic, we feel on the brink of disaster as we tread
the membranes between water and air,
sky and ground
tender and grave
as a kiss.
(“Oxygen, Moon”). We are anxious in the smallest things as we realize we are surrounded by forces that both give and take lives: “Below them, the shadows spread / like a dark rash across a sleeping fish’s body. Above them, clouds like gills.” (“Bartering and the Myth of Shells”).
In these narrative poems, we see a tragic moment ripple out first to the survivors, then to the survivors’ families, their acquaintances, the local community, the online community, the government. Inevitable, unavoidable waves radiate from the mundane through the event, through the panic, ever larger like the ocean, where many of these poems are anchored.
We’re told the stories of large and small tragedies and of the survivors who lived through them. In the telling we’re made to feel their experience even as their reactions sometimes surprise us. In “The Inadequacy of Pink,” a lifeguard reflects on a time he was left alone, unpraised, after saving a girl from drowning, and how the girl’s family went on with its day as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary had happened:
After a long night away from the pool
on the beach at Sea Isle,
he imagines the new world
rising out of his lap,
remembering his last save, a girl gone too deep
and the tube she’d slipped through—
and how he’d waited for a crowd to gather around him
And the effects don’t end with witnesses and survivors; Panic shows how one drop in the water—one child’s death by drowning in a swimming pool—ripples out so far that entire communies, even online communities, feel it. When in “Gone a Little Wild” a woman is killed, the city allows a commemorative garden but then disallows a sign with her name on it, the woman’s sister ceases caring for the garden, which becomes overgrown and reaches out to the street “as if grasping for us.”
The reader is made to feel, in a visceral sense, the emotional condition of the people left behind to wonder how and why—not the least of which emotions, as the title suggests, is panic. We ache as those who’ve abruptly lost someone or something—their child, the community’s respect, the love of their family—are stunned, and we are taken on the journey through the mechanisms of their personal sadness into and through that of the global community.
These poems flow freely with a rhythm that propels each line into the next and tempts the reader to pass through them quickly. However, avoid this if at all possible. The more this temptation is avoided and the poems are read with a slow, deliberate pace, the more the poems, like the overgrown garden, will grasp at you; the more the ripples may reach and embrace you.
Two of the poems published in this collection originally ran here at Connotation Press. Click on the title to read “Panic, Red Bank” and “The Semantics of Panic”.