Lauren Russell’s What’s Hanging on the Hush (Ahsahta, 2017)
Review by Joshua Escobar
Lauren Russell’s new collection emerges from lived brutalities and fading disillusionment, and it samples material from contemporary documentaries, first-hand accounts of the Spanish Inquisition, Victorian literature, Post-Modern philosophy, and vegetarian cookbooks. One query of What’s Hanging on the Hush seems to be, What does it mean to seduce in a society so ready to coerce?
The opening section deals with her treatment as “mentally insane” patient, and it presents consciousness as ample and acute, and the world as shifting and malleable. The opening stanza ends “Honesty’s / underexposed, a dim photograph / of one identifiable ear or half / a bird bath and a telltale tail”. “The cat shifts in his sleep,” the last poem begins, “back paw grazing the edge / of this page, and moans without waking, like the point in a dream / when I realize I’m in bed with someone seven years dead, so I must wake / up but feel so strangely tingly that I lunge deeper and so what?” Sure understandings of the present (such as those of my current environment, late capitalism, hyper-competitive, global, mania) sound hollow next to these poems; like after-school kids blowing into dirty bottles. Definition, itself, seems grand. While the opening section is full of over-riding energy, it is also totally criminal. “Regulator, I Married Him—“ “Unit” and “Of Mice and Monsters” stage inhumanity visà-vis a tenebrific musical about the marriage of two infamous murderers. It takes place in the middle of a rat’s maze, the whole affair produced by Doctors of Accused Crimes Against Lab Rats. The pre-game is attended by Franz Kafka, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Brontë, packs of dead lab rats in professional attire, and someone with a gun! Enlightenment and existential fictions, clippings from medical journals, notices from landlords, pop references, new patient questionnaires make up the opening section, and they present the absurdity of the carceral psychiatric care while dating such practices. They strip down these crude, modern forms of necromancy to a rattle. In the middle of it all, wearing a “lead gown thread gown”, the poet emerges: “The day they let me go … I stood in the hallway speechless / between the men and a painting called The Chess Players / with nothing in it but a mattress in a plastic pack.” One of the men is Sol, who leaves his cell only for electroshock therapy and pills. With an almost pained expression, Russell then relates the madness of the mental asylum to our own society where LGBT folk have to come out; beauty belongs to a highly revered pantheon; a middle-class upbringing, like any sort of canonical knowledge, has serious flaws.
In the second section of What’s Hanging on the Hush, poetry is a way to deal with life without being belittled or tacky. Her lyricism moves through a well-varnished lecture hall, a predatory roadside inn, the headspaces of certain novelists, the crannies of a Victorian mansion somewhere in Pittsburg, feisty and intricate Sun Tzu thought experiments. “Those who attack with fire must have perspicacity, / while those who attack with water must have strength,” she writes, “The wall flower sitting alone at the bar is secretly consolidating her forces.” Russell’s poetry also investigates social trauma: the cruel courtrooms of segregated South Carolina and the Spanish Inquisition. Russell seems interested in the anthropomorphic conditions that render a hunting ground: What hope is there for the unicorn? She remarks on how little it takes: “For large wood….55 sols, 6 deniers. / For vine-branches…21 sols, 3 deniers. / For straw…2 sols, 6 deniers…”. In addition to this hellish and worldly terrain, Russell explores abstract, untethered, and ephemeral expanses. “Once I fell in love with an Absence,” she says in “Dream-Clung, Gone”, “…Three winters now and the Absence is restless. It’s blown across the river, arrives late when it meets me for beer. The Absence is singing…”
If the majority of Russell’s collection explores torment—hush as a suture, hush as intensity— then the final section is made up of a different set of resonances. Her self-portrait, “Begotten, Not Made”, strung together with slow, quivering “I” statements starting with “I do not believe in astrology, despite my appearance”, ultimately leads to somebody else, the other “across a continent”. Erotic and elegiac “10/4/09” documents a sudden, senseless death. Another poem tells of the subjugating of subjugation, itself —profoundly cataclysmic without the profound hangover of epic stories, enigma. In these later poems, humor operates not just as relief. The poems about of Gregor Samsa and Jacques Derrida in their moments of delirium and nakedness speak to over-determined masculinity as well as the sun-cycling powers of a feline. I hear something beyond tenderness and companionship in the poem about her and her cat Neruda on a boat in the night: “cigar print: / catnip ash clawedup mast”. Elsewhere she writes, “She has always covered her trail. / She has only jostled the rattle”, tracing her pleasures back to ancestral thirst for freedom.
One poem touched on a particular impulse of my own. Liza Minnelli is on in the background at a party when Russell kisses an “extremely tall” nameless mystery, a mystery that could be an exoskeleton, Satan or, as someone suggests, Osama Bin Laden. After living in Brooklyn for about two years, I moved back to my hometown in southern California’s Inland Empire. My queer existence feels altogether different here. I find myself listening not to disco or 80’s pop, but to the Cure’s Disintegration, remixes of Freddie Mercy’s “Love Kills” and “Living on My Own”, and SZA’s Ctrl. I’m happy here even though I miss all my friends. Our bodies change and involve us in electrifying and unfathomable love. It is disorienting but not half as crazy as the various squadrons of warnations. Our moments of ecstasy overshadow all the bad breath and anxiety. All this to say that the final poem of What’s Hanging on the Hush is about sexual satisfaction and cake, and it’s so beautiful. I’m so grateful for Lauren Russell’s new work and her hermeneutic technique. In her debut, she finds ground.