Play Dead

By Stephen Burt

Scary and purposeful, almost but not quite chaotic, harris’s second volume sets out to shred taboos, defend the vulnerable, remember the dead, and craft a full account of a traumatic, complicated sexual life. In lines that feel autobiographical, in prose blocks that avoid even hints of narrative, and in reactions to earlier works of visual art (by Francis Bacon, Kara Walker) and older poems (by George Herbert, Horace), harris portrays rape survivors, dangerous families, porn actors, porn viewers, teens, and young adults who cannot disarticulate violence from pleasure: “I wet and no one laughing in you. // No one small pigtail lily. pigtrunk,” harris stutters, responding to Walker (pigs are a leitmotif). A poem (one of several) called “suicide note” hopes “to plan for the elastic nature of control. to unsnap.” One more-straightforward work begins, “In 1984 sex with the boy across the street / required baby oil.” Some poems get uncomfortably specific, almost in the manner of Sharon Olds: “you wouldn’t let us call the police since you were crazy at the time and thought they’d take you away, 3 a.m. / because they had taken you away before when you called the police on your husband, my father.” Elsewhere we see “any body on top of body, genital on top of genital is an amorphous stump,” and the confusion—of lust with revenge, of wish with need, of adult with child—is part of the point. She can use her long lists and quick cuts to portray a young woman in flight from herself; at the same time, her figurative language can rise into confidence, showing exactly how and why "[s]he wants to set the house ablaze.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2016.