Alexis Pope’s That Which Comes After, review by Timothy Otte

Alexis Pope’s That Which Comes After (Big Lucks Books, 2018)

Review by Timothy Otte

That Which Comes After, Alexis Pope’s second book, is comprised of snipped off sections of life, creating a collage of what appears on the other side of the Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feed—the parts of a life that don’t get shared, but are very much parts of a complete life. These snipped-off pieces add up to a book length meditation on desire, domesticity, motherhood, and mental health: what does it mean to have a body, to live in a body, give birth to a body? All of these questions are tangled up with the ways women’s bodies are politicized; the ways women’s actions are seen as implicit threats to the powerful, even the most basic needs and desires.

That Which Comes After includes laundry, groceries, and menstruation in columnar, unpunctuated, and widely spaced lines. Sections are untitled, but marked by an opening line in small caps. Pope documents the ways a person tries to build a life around ritual and the ways life resists those rituals, controlling the pace by letting the lines run breathlessly or by tangling the syntax to slow the reader. In the middle of the very first section she writes:

My day consists of talking myself out
Of self-loathing wash my underwear in the sink
Somethings can emphasize my sex
You walk the room I’m barren
In the presence of children
All these plastic containers
I’m drowning in a life vest

The work grows out of daily living, making a ritual out of the day-to-day in much the same way as The Bridge by Mary Austin Speaker and The Falling Down Dance by Chris Martin, which share a visual form on the page. Double-spaced lines tumble down the page, often landing with half a page of white space for the reader to linger in. “A ritual is what / I make happen for myself,” Pope writes, reminding us that our routines are rituals, whether we grant them anything like ceremony. And sometimes rituals are just the things we keep repeating: “my dollar fifty / Black knit gloves I keep losing.”

Throughout, repetition is intentional and well placed, with poems calling back to and referencing one another. About halfway through the book, Pope writes:

Tell me the good kind
Of work is with hands
That a life fills the house
Backyard with a deck
You built yours
This is what
I’ve made with mine

Twenty pages later, as the book turns toward its conclusion, she writes:

Decorate a home
Trace the nostalgia
Of this forfeiture
As if I’ve built
Anything with these hands

It’s an admittance that life isn’t linear and that from day to day an artist may love or hate the work they’ve made, the work they’re making. There is not necessarily a redemption narrative in That Which Comes After. When repetition does come, it’s complicated:

Could be my voice
Quiets in these moments
I’m doing better
I’m doing better
Lie to me in the winter
I’m doing better

This remarkable passage marks the only time in the book that lines are repeated unchanged so near to one another.

Pope’s syntax is the most impressive aspect of That Which Comes After. She lets phrases careen into one another, layering multiple meanings by arranging sentences just so; the omission of punctuation avoids steering the reader toward a single meaning.

Thought about calling
Thought about not
Distant grey sky
What does it look
Over you
The blankets we under
Stand again inside

By omitting the word “like” after “What does it look,” Pope is able to ask, what does it look like? but also asks and answers another question: Distant grey sky: What does it look over? You. The reader supplies multiple ways to punctuate lines throughout, deepening the meaning. While Pope doesn’t break words often, the splitting of “under / stand” here is inspired.

Politics are present throughout, an ever-present insistence on the legitimacy of the female body. At the beginning of the book, Pope’s focus is on validating the body, whether it is hungry or horny or menstruating or simply existing. “Pick up the laundry at one / Part my folds / Live tweet your orgasm”—laundry and sex and social media all exist on a level here. Men in literature have always been allowed to prattle on about mundane things and call it profound; Pope reclaims that practice, managing to actually be profound by compressing time, fitting a whole life into this book, sometimes even in a handful of lines:

Buying tampons
Is like buying diapers
It doesn’t end
Until it does
My blood petals
Its beautiful meaning

These lines come at the beginning of the book. As the book progresses, though, Pope gets direct: one section begins, “Men keep telling me how strong I am.” The next section asks, “What man has ever listened to the rules.” Lines like these throughout the book can be read as sardonic, but they also sound exhausted, especially near the end of the book. These are lines written by a woman who wants to be heard by men who claim to be allies. “I’m not asking you to support me / I’m asking for your support” she writes. Later, exasperation isn’t enough and anger comes in:

Another girl dies
And another another one
Rubs my leg without asking
My nerves push him closer
All these allies can’t listen
All these men think they see

The repeated “another” in the second line above compounds the repeated tragedy, but also blurs into the line that follows—“another [man] / Rubs my leg without asking”—and puts the tragedy in proximity to the harassment, making a link between them: small violences beget larger ones.

The success of That Which Comes After is in its dynamic range and sensitivity. Throughout, the book never feels repetitive or tonally redundant. Pope is open to rage, sarcasm, exhaustion, joy, boredom, bewilderment, and the dozens of micro-moments of emotion humans experience every day. “Time passes it takes forever,” she writes, risking melodrama and landing in intimacy: “I tell her I’m focusing / On not dying and she says / Keep doing that.”