“A Riot of Surface”: Hannah Brooks-Motl’s The New Years

 

hannahbrooks-motl

Review by Leah Silvieus

Hannah Brooks-Motl’s debut collection of poetry, The New Years, deals with the tension between skating well on surfaces (to borrow a phrase from Emerson, whom Brooks-Motl references frequently throughout the book) and pressing through surface into the meaning-making of memory. Brooks-Motl divides the book into three sections: “Winter Then,” “Properly Speaking” and “Village & Sea.” None of the poems have titles, and the scarcity of end-stops throughout the collection conjures a dreamlike world that drifts from one thought or moment to the next, from seaside hotel to prairie to snowed-in car. The melancholy that suffuses the book is not merely the result of the speaker’s being alone but of acknowledging the distance that the act of remembering necessitates:

We love the new year like an object
Or decide to, filling our hands with the unpleasant snow
To type a thing we must be cold (39)

To remember, in some ways, is to relinquish one’s possession of the past. Allusion is not the original text itself. In fact, allusion emphasizes the reader’s distance from the original. Likewise, memory cannot be the past moment itself. The memories we have today will become ghosts, surface, perhaps even nonsensical:

Ahead of me, there are ghosts
Do I know them
Their names, particular looks, and a certain
Singing nature
It’s possible I have spoken
Nonsense […] (82)

At times, The New Years risks skating away from the reader on its own surfaces. The book generally resists, however, by grounding itself in literary allusion (e.g. “My dear wild boar,” a phrase culled from a letter from Jenny to Karl Marx) and striking images that unite elevated diction with colloquial speech: “What good to speak now to love’s endlessness—like litter over the / prairie.” (74) Perhaps what grounds the book foremost, however, are the candid moments from the speaker’s past that sear through the winding discourse about memory:

The embarrassment once of not knowing what “counterpane” meant
A word a lover used in an email
I wrote back a description of the hotel where I was (14)

Celebrating a new year, in theory, is about specificity: the glowing countdown to the year in Times Square, the televised countdowns of the 100 best music videos of the year, the news highlights. But when viewed in the plural, how quickly the new years blur. What was the top song of 1991? What did the hosts serve at the New Year’s party I attended in 2005? Did I even go to a party that year?  What we remember, we remember in incomplete or sometimes even mistaken glimpses, Brooks-Motl points out. The New Years gains its footing precisely by admitting there is no footing, and in the end, skates away, but not without a haunting final address and inquiry to readers about where we are going, which in some ways, is also a question of where we’ve come from:

The head is your spring and being walked
Through the hills, a black field—
Where is your soft, suburban grotto
To go to, again
Is it handsome (83)

***

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her at http://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

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