OHIO VIOLENCE by Alison Stine
(University of North Texas Press, 2009)
The poems in Alison Stine’s first book are eerie, creepy, ominous: they have the feel of those quiet moments in horror movies when, though nothing has quite happened yet, you just know that something absolutely awful is about to. The wind blows, birds cry, clothes flap on the line, and the tension rises to an unbearable level—as often as not to be relieved (if ‘relieved’ is the right word) by the discovery that, to borrow Heidegger’s words, ‘the dreadful has already happened’:
. . . They have found
her bones in the park, scattered circuitous
by animals amid the fretted leaves, the forest
giving up its secret in layers of stench:
the heavy sweet, the vinegar. Now a slender
leg. Now a finger, a skull smashed like a star
on the spot that was once soft, that someone once,
years ago, took great care to guard. . .
(“After the Body”)
‘The Dreadful Has Already Happened’ is also, of course, the title of a poem by Mark Strand, and Stine’s poems share some of the weirdness that animated Strand’s early work, though the setting, as suggested by the book’s title, is interestingly her own: a Middle America whose gestures at heartland wholesomeness are entirely incapable of concealing the grim reality lying beneath. (Perhaps the true presiding spirit of Ohio Violence is the David Lynch of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, those squeaky-clean all-American towns in which the possibility of grisly death ever lurks in the woods and fields that lie just beyond the parking lot.)
“This is football country,” declares the opening poem, “Fields Beyond Fields”; later, Dale Earnhardt makes an appearance, as does Elvis. But it is not the lives but rather the deaths of these figures that fascinates this poet:
. . . I heard when Lisa Marie
at nine found him dead or dying, marble skin
in the bathroom, blood leadening, forehead
taking on the tub mantle, she got in her
golf cart and circled Graceland again
and again until the cops came. It was early
morning. It is only a story, but I think it is
true. . . .
This concern with truth and fiction—the question of whether a story is true, and of what it means if it isn’t—pops up frequently. “We lay in the fields, and I // swear to you, nothing happened,” Stine writes in “Fields Beyond Fields.” As if worried that the reader might such denials too comforting, she later confronts us with the question: “Does it matter if it didn’t happen?” (“When the Hand is a Knife.”) Well, one might say, it matters to us—particularly when the ‘it’ stands, as it so often seems to here, for our lives, our very existences:
From brain to body blooming,
it is all about chemicals; it is always
about them, too much or too few
inhibited, the nerves frayed,
the blood lines blocked. At birth,
the chord can twist the neck; it can
choke . . .
(“Elegy for the Interrupted”)
It is not clear exactly who “the interrupted” are. They might be just about anyone; indeed, they might have been us. One comes away from Ohio Violence newly impressed with the contingency and instability of the hazardous universe that is our home; and impressed, as well, with the ability of these stark, memorable poems to distill that universe into language and to make of it a sad and haunting song.
Troy Jollimore’s first book of poems, Tom Thomson in Purgatory (MARGIE / Intuit House) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 2006.