Review by Melissa Atkinson Mercer
Jessica Walsh’s How to Break My Neck illuminates a world where “sharks were not ill-willed/not at first”, where chairs “rest just this side/of suicide” , where we are all hurtled head-long towards destruction. Ferocious and tireless, this book is an examination of the ways that we—the human we—are erased and blurred and re-written, often by our own actions and inactions. There we go again: “your tongue/throwing knives down your raw throat” while “she [takes] no measures/to prevent repeated injury” and “I am over here/screaming like razor blades on metal,/same as everyone” . After all, “anyone can see that/we are no one’s goal” .
Walsh takes us to that unflinching place where mortality, culpability, and identity collide, where the speaker laments. Indeed, the shes and yous and Is blend and morph as the task of separating one identity from another becomes more and more difficult. We know one self only by the ways we set it against another, and even then, we are constantly forced to re-assess, re-negotiate: “you and me/we depend on context”.
In this light, interactions, even with the self, become fraught with constant danger: we might lose ourselves or we might multiply, we might be unending or unfindable. Nowhere is this danger more prevalent than in “More Like Me”, a poem that anchors themes of blame and selfhood. Here, Walsh discusses German POWs trying to swim to safety through a lake in Michigan:
The worst must have been knowing
they were still and always themselves.
I know the feeling.
I swim all night.
This is a poem filled with war tanks draped in tulle, conflations of enemy and self, and finally, an ominous declaration—one that reveals, yet again, an unsteady and fragmented identity:
There could be more like me
if we aren’t careful.
Poem by poem, this book enacts its own demise, questions its very right to exist. “Only the unrecorded is merciful”, the speaker warns us, a suggestion of futility which echoes again in the self-referential erasure of the final poem’s final line: “were we really poets? Why?”
The answer, of course, precedes the question. If, as we are told, “only wanting lasts”, then want is the book’s true legacy: that furious, frantic want that exists beyond pronouns, beyond the record of any one person or life. We should take heed; we should “be confused/and right/now”.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 20, Issue 1.
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