Do Not Rise by Beth Bachmann
Review by Brandi Nicole Martin
When Beth Bachmann released Temper in 2009, she left a violent mark on the poetry world with her elegiac lyrics and her biting lines, lines which tear the universe open for the reader, allowing them to be shaken by haunting images—train tracks, bullet holes in the sky, a sister’s body in a field—and to be left in awe of the silence that follows such upheaval. Now, in 2015, Bachmann’s Do Not Rise deals with what comes after, with war, with PTSD, with memories that knot and unknot the brain to create a tense openness. Something important is said here about anxiety—that speakers can be hard and distant but also vulnerable to their surroundings, and to what apparitions their surroundings call back into being. As Bachmann says in “crisis,” “The water wants out so open / your mouth and say, snow.” Everything in this book wants out. Everything in this book is on fire and begging for snow. This is a book for anyone who’s ever felt a tightness in their chest and wanted it torn open.
While Temper dropped bombs of startling images and let them echo into the silence of white space, the poems in Do Not Rise simmer and spread out through the atmosphere, mirroring on the page the omnipresence of anxiety and doubt. As Bachmann writes in “open war,”
“Open as a body
after detonation, half of me is still here. The only
thing you have to fear is yourself. Leave
the rest to me.”
In addition to re-experiencing traumatic events in flashbacks and night terrors, survivors of trauma experiencing PTSD sometimes feel a strong sense of guilt, depression, or worry. This is evident in “open war” as in all of the other poems in the book. As the speaker in the quote above is “still here,” they imply that part of them is also still back in the war. The image of detonation implies that the speaker’s body is mangled and left susceptible to that aforementioned sense of worry, but it also creates a sense of relief at the idea that a body can be ripped asunder to release anxiety. Do Not Rise is certainly quieter than Temper, but Bachmann still expertly proves that she is a master of tension, tension which lingers just under the surface of these brief, violent poems, tension which presents itself in duality, in push and pull, first one point, and then the other.
One of the most beautiful things about this book is the duality, the way it sets darkness alongside light. In “ode” the speaker confesses to powerlessness.
“Bare my throat, I said,
in a face full of sand. I swallowed
too much water. The property is private, the way we’ve come to
think of grief as nonviolence, absence, lack,
fasting as an act
The images of a face in sand and a throat full of water are claustrophobic. They’re terrifying, as the reader would expect trauma to be. However, Bachmann lets the poem breathe in the following lines, using caesuras in the middle of her thoughts. This allows the reader to digest the suffocation she’s dealing out, and later the poem moves on to say, “After awhile facedown in the field, / we roll over. All my favorite stars are animals,” and in the poem’s conclusion, “We roll onto the nest of skylark / to hear it sing.” This poem, the final one in the first section of this book, ends with hope. This represents the up and down of PTSD and it puts the reader on edge, as if surely there is still more panic to come, but it also shows how gorgeously vulnerable survivors of trauma are. Rolling over means more breath. It might even mean hope, and though the tension in this book never ends, it’s important for readers to see that sufferers of severe anxiety have another side to them. It’s a side which wants to be okay, and wanting to be okay is the first step in the long path to recovery.
In “cleave” Bachmann presents a twisted sort of treatment of the speaker’s anxiety. A follow up to the snow in “open war,” “cleave” begins with blood on the snow. It’s interesting that snow is presented like this, splattered with violence, when before in the collection, snow has appeared to represent relief. Here, however, Bachmann says, “The snow says, blood –shed, but blood is not leaf or fur / or skin. The way snow shows muscle is unnatural.” The landscape is sinister, and it serves as evidence of the violence the speaker has endured. Formally, this poem has longer lines with less caesuras than elsewhere in the collection, and the lines are urgent because of this. Bachmann says here that blood is important. She says that snow always bears the marks of what was killed atop it. This confession, and the urgency of the longer line in this poem, say that the blood is a story that needs to be told. In the notes for this collection, Bachmann states that “cleave” is written in response to “Asking For It,” a poem written by English poet and solder Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was one of the leading poets in the First World War, and the line Bachmann was inspired by is as follows: “Grant us the power to prove, by poison gases, / The needlessness of shedding human blood.”
In many ways, Do Not Rise is the answer to Temper. The severe story present in Temper—the unsolved murder of the poet’s sister—presents a reality that there can be no possible recovery from. Do Not Rise further complicates this reality, tugging repeatedly at the reader so that they flinch and then breathe, flinch and then breathe. The mere act of immersing the reader in so much trauma, however, is a gorgeous one, as it mirrors the long road to recovery that PTSD sufferers must take. This book acts as psychotherapy, and the poems in here are horrifying, but they also illustrate a speaker that wants to get better. “It’s like a bad joke / I cannot resist retelling,” states Bachmann in “energy,” the final poem of Do Not Rise. Recovery is out there somewhere for the speaker in this book, and as with real recovery from PTSD, it may take a lifetime. It may never come at all. But these poems suggest in a catastrophic way that it’s possible, maybe, one day.
Brandi Nicole Martin’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Washington Square Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Salt Hill, Crab Orchard Review, Harpur Palate, the minnesota review, and PANK Magazine, among others. She is at work on an MFA in poetry at Florida State University.