Animal heart Press
In this deeply personal, often experimental debut collection, David Hanlon contemplates the elliptical nature of trauma and how language alternately diminishes and amplifies our place in the world. The poems in this chapbook remind us that experience is not a linear emotional event: it is a psychological organ that lives and breathes outside our bodies where the battle lines drawn from memory grapple with waves of premonition, and where pain transforms into promise. Spectrum of Flight is everything a full-length collection should be: tender, ambitious, and relentless in its pursuit of meaning.
From the collection’s opening poem, I’ll never forget the dead fox on the roadside with its guts hanging out,
Because I’d never seen a fox on my council estate before
Because I was seven or eight years old at the time
Because the first time I did / it was daylight / and it was dead
Because I too / only come out in the dark
Someone who has never experienced reinforced trauma asks, what is it about the human heart that returns it to the point of trauma? What does the heart seek in the repetition of traumatic experience? These are the wrong questions. The human body has a center of gravity that allows it to move with relative safety within the world and so does the human heart. The heart does not move toward trauma. Trauma is a thief that steals the heart’s center of gravity, then uses elliptical trajectories to masquerade as a safety mechanism to keep the heart isolated, to keep it coming back to trauma’s point of origin.
Webster defines the word because as “reason next explained.” It is a word perpetually seeking its counterpart in language, a word always in motion. Poet Lyn Hejinian in The Rejection of Closure argues that repetition “challenges our inclination to isolate, identify, and limit the burden of meaning given to an event (the sentence or line),” and I think this is the argument Hanlon makes in this poem, which makes it the ideal departure point. I’m not convinced that isolating a traumatic experience makes it less impactful. The idea seems rather absurd.
Rather than seeking to limit or contain the impact and meaning of the experiences being carried, Hanlon’s opening poem seeks to give them what their asking for, to find the counterpoint of these traumas and extinguish their gravity. If words had medicinal properties, because would be the antidote to isolated. The repetition of the word at the beginning of every line reaches across the white space between lines to connect these instances of experience, to make them less alone.
The poem slips and slides between levels of memory and perspective, inviting other points of trauma to speak, “Because one time a bully / from entrance to exit / held a penknife against my gut.” The poem’s movement between instances of physical conflict, flashes of memory, and sudden moments of realization sets up one of the central themes in the collection: trauma isn’t confined within the distant boundaries of memory. It can not be witnessed from a distance; its gravitational pull demands our complete attention. In the physical world it’s a terrifying reality, but this is the field of poetry where we are called upon to make peace with the unthinkable. In poetry thoughts and language become malleable objects we control.
The elliptical nature of the collection allows Hanlon to draw upon all the possibilities, to make elegant juxtapositions, to liberate experiences from their place in time, and to break the rules of conventional syntax. It’s the later in which I think Hanlon particularly excels, elevating his poems from the sterile “documentary realism” that often drains narrative poetry of its energy. His poems consistently display careful thought to the orientation of the poem on the page. It’s a tendency that is both reassuring and heartbreaking. It reminds us this a voice that, from a young age, learned to choreograph language and body presentation as a basic survival skill.
Spectrum of Flight is the poetry of Hanlon’s autobiographical experience. Sexuality, bigotry, depression, heartbreak, and personal recovery (the return of the center of gravity) all become physical forces in this collection. In the poem “On seeing Derek Jarman’s ‘Sebastiane’ when coming of age” we find Hanlon’s speaker in the midst of adolescent torment:
Batty boy Batty Boy! BATTY BOY!
B O Y
There is nothing childish about the promise of violence. Upon the kind of examination only memory committed to the page can provide we understand the word is being used with enough force to break it. It breaks because of the speed at which it moves. It breaks because its volume can not be contained. It breaks because eventually it hits its target and shatters leaving its victim with a belly full of shrapnel.
The poem continues and eventually Hanlon finds his way to a stunning discovery, “I don’t know how I stumbled / on such a film in my family home.” The film in question is Derek Jarman’s “Sebastiane.” The juxtaposition of the threat of violence and the actualized violence experienced by Saint Sebastian in the film is one the poem doesn’t make lightly and in the middle of torment, there is a moment of solace when Hanlon discovers “defined muscle / laid up against jagged rocks / softened into tender-made beds / where any head such as mine” would be “comforted / as one is by the sight of new life in spring.”
This particular passage reminded me of poet Charles Olson when he argued that a poem conducts energy from the source to the reader and that “the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy construct and, at all points, an energy discharge.” Syntax allows us to exert control, take risks, and – eventually – break words and rearrange their energy. Within the context of Hanlon’s poem, it also reminds me that a high energy construct can be quiet, contemplative, and revelatory.
In “Moon as masked self” Hanlon’s use of the diptych presents us with two forces working against each other, weaving in and out of each other’s trajectory: the left side of the poem a tender love letter to the self, the right side a righteous litany. Again, we are lulled by the elliptical sway of the poem until the poem’s final reconciliation,
Don’t leave me here any longer
I can’t keep up this pretense
I can’t keep on shining just to be seen
Writer Hannah Gadsby once said that ‘coming out’ is not the point of trauma, it is the accumulation of trauma. It’s the inability to reside any longer on the border between the visible and the erased. When I came to the end of “Moon as masked self” I immediately recalled Hanlon’s opening image of the fox on the roadside. I recalled the importance of the image of light throughout these poems, the image of things being seen, and the threat that comes with being seen by others (in the classroom, in the sport’s apparel store, on the street), but most of all I’m reminded of the existential threat of not being seen (like the fox). A person does not shine to be seen. A person shines because. A person does not come out to be seen. A person comes out because.
Voice is not the rejection of silence; it is the rejection of being silenced and it is one of the most compelling features of Spectrum of Flight. Spoken with certainty and compassion for personal experience and gut wrenching heartbreak, these poems value movement to and away from the source. It is, in every way, the high-energy construct Charles Olson was talking about.
*With gratitude to the following essays “Projective Verse” by Charles Olson and “The Rejection of Closure” by Lyn Hejinian.
David Hanlon is from Cardiff, Wales, and currently living in Bristol, England. He is training part-time as a counsellor/therapist. You can find his work online at Riggwelter Press, Dirty Paws Poetry Review, Into The Void, Boston Accent Lit, Yes, Poetry, Barren Magazine & Royal Rose Magazine, among others. You can follow him on twitter @David Hanlon13
Julia Beach Anderson received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a Master of Fine Arts from the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. She lives and works in New England as a graphic designer and content writer. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Occulum, Barren Magazine, and Flypaper Lit.
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