Review: Between the Crackups / Rebecca Lehmann

Rebecca Lehmann. Between the Crackups. Salt Publishing. 2011.

Reviewed by Claire Nelson

650-rsz_between_the_crackups.jpg

Rebecca Lehmann suffers fools; she suffers love and tradition, suffers childhood, suffers adults and changing landscapes. She suffers with yip and bite, with honesty. Lehmann’s collection Between the Crackups puts my mind at ease, each poem reassures me that between the crackups, along the dirty seam that runs across our lives, is acumen, beauty and humor. Lehmann assures me that each time I find myself making a scene, crying in a room full of uncomfortable colleagues, there is, at least, a good poem to be found. The juxtaposition of collapse and insight is seen in “The End of the World” where Lehmann admits “I am by nature the kind of person who breaks down,” but also a person who “wanted to sing a song that had emotional register.” Between the Crackups resonates with the truth that a person can do both.

Between the Crackups is divided into three sections, “The Devil is in Detroit,” “Think Georgia, Gorgeous,” and “The Poem is the Story.” The sections move through landscapes and dreamscapes, from the wet blanket humidity of the South, to the snowed-in Midwest, to the lucidity of fever dreams. Similarly, the poems shift formally, from sonnets, to epistolary sequences, to tightly constructed pieces, to prose. The first poem, “A Hundred Words For Loser” sets the tone of the book and shoves the reader down a playground slide, moving across Lehmann’s map of experience.

“A Hundred Words For Loser” is a well-crafted sonnet, pairing musicality and disturbance. The first lines sing with internal rhyme and a sharp toothed chomp on the arm: “Dear glove-puppet, you should come here; / it’s grey and everybody hates you.” The speaker is at once both childlike and bitterly adult, voices that continue to struggle with and against each other throughout the book. The poem also introduces themes of sexuality and exploitation that reoccur in each section. A man tells a story of incest in which the daughters’ “syphilitic shadows / slink across the ceiling tiles.” And what of the children’s “hidden girly ribbons”? “[D]on’t worry; they stink / of sulfur and twist.” Sharp teeth sink into your arm again and again. In a deft shift, the “you” returns, leaving the reader with “Hey stupid, / bring me dead things and a flat stomach.”

Lehmann embraces the ugly world of her poems and pulls the reader in for a bear hug. There’s “finger-fuck slut” (“Muster Lovely”),  “cunt rag,” “ass-wipe,” (“The Factory”) and “vomit and loose teeth / pooling on our tabletops” (The Youngest Girl in Memphis”). Sometimes, though, ugliness is childlike, and Lehmann proves its aching legitimacy. It’s not surprising that in “Letters To A Shithead Friend,” “you are still a shithead,” and “sky blue is a stupid color.” Worst of all, “the ten kittens did not impress” and they were released into the neighborhood. In “Bucolic Calling” the apple orchard sticks “stung like meanies.” In “1/∞=0” Lehmann puts a face to this world: a “snarling monster” with “matted fur / spotted with light and ice, its snaggle- / tooth a mess of old skulls, forced together.” But she makes no apologies. Relief comes in the musicality of Lehmann’s work. Harsh words croon.

Reading Between the Crackups gives me the sensation of standing immobile under the showerhead replaying each miserable word I’ve ever said, every dumb mistake I’ve ever made, the time I waved at someone I didn’t know. Lehmann gives a world I don’t want to listen to, but I take notes anyway. She does this by skillfully weaving voices together— anger is paired with the childish, with humor and self-awareness. She presents herself as both a keen observer and a whole human, standing naked under the showerhead, sympathetic and uncertain.Between the Crackups validates the minute details of human experience, however shameful, however glorious, however tender. Lehmann bares all, spares nothing, and in “Something Very Woman” asks, “Why should anything be inappropriate?”


Rebecca Lehmann has published work in Tin House, The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, and many other journals. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a PhD in creative writing and literary theory from Florida State University. Awards for her poetry include a Maytag Fellowship and a John Mackay Shaw Academy of American Poets Award.

Claire Nelson is a writer and contributor for SEROnline and an MFA student at Florida State University.