Reviewed by Justin Goodman
In The Tree We Planted and Buried You In
by Billie R Tadros
Otis Books | Seismicity Editions
Feb 2018,ISBN-13: 978-0986083662,88 pages, 12.95
Nothing so perfectly encapsulates the hypnagogic state as the opening of The Twilight Zone: a potpourri of discordant, non-linear shadow and substance. That moment just prior to sleep where coherence breaks down and which could be called a waking dream. Think: Surrealism. Its mirror state, hypnopompia, could be called a hardass. An attempt to make sense of dream’s loose logic before wakefulness; the Abbott to hypnagogia’s Costello. And dreams, say the experts, play a role in converting experience into memory. So you might think of it as spicing a stew – the heat of hypnagogia “opens” the memory up to additional flavors, and the cooling hypnopompia “closes” off new flavors in order to consolidate them. Inexact as the analogy is, it’s enough to understand where Billie R Tadros’ debut poetry collection, In The Tree We Planted And Buried You In, is coming from. Not only because it relies on the concept of hypnopomp to structure itself, but also because The Tree We Planted commits itself to the sticky associativeness of traumatic memory. Here the collection encounters the familiar issues of dissociating style’s elephantine presence from the art’s frame. Hypnopomp’s structure or hypnagogia’s rhythm?
On her website Tadros describes her project as “seeking to articulate a feminist injury poetics,” and this comes across throughout her body of work. The previous chapbook, 2016’s inter: burial places, lays this bare with such post-hardcore, pithy phrases as “You don’t need space you need/stitches” and “Like Doppler effect I loved you sky screams.” That this latter line is reminiscent of the first sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow is useful because, much like Pynchon’s novels, tadros’ chapbooks are image-dense, wordcoy, and erotically charged. Take “intersperse:” for example:
You were purpling in
circles swinging like
helicopter petals in late
fall and we fell into
When I called you fleeting
letting the seeds:
If I can’t have you
anywhere I’ll have you
This doesn’t need much elaboration. Purpling, falling into dandelions, and having someone everywhere suggests the erotic (as does the double meaning of seeds). It can also suggest death as the “fleeting” body purples and falls, going everywhere in a Whitmanian dispersal of atoms though. Is it funereal or sexual? The title emphasizes the orthogonal relationship between the ever-presence of a loved one in presence and in absence. Almost as if love itself is a kind of eu-trauma. A poetics that attempts to grasp the complexity of loving as, with, and through trauma.
The reason I make note of this poem is because Tadros noticeably slims these facets of her poetry in In The Tree We Planted. While her chapbooks could be considered cousin to Jorie Graham with her viscerality and evasiveness, her debut collection tends towards the cautious directness of HD. If you were so inclined you might call the former hypnogogic and the latter hypnopompic. The former haziness, the latter concretion. And so the story is opened with a dedication “for the man who was born on Christmas (25 Dec. 1955 – 12 Feb. 2005)” and a “Prologue.” These lead into the five sections and an epilogue that compose the entirety of the collection – Roots, Trunk, Branches, Leaves, Fruit. An odd firmness after wiggly imagery like “helicopter petals.” Can the A→C logic Tadros relied on walk the narrow road? Can poetry’s referentiality be arboresque? More directly: does In The Tree We Planted’s seeming firmness coexist with the inter- nature of Tadros’ feminist injury poetics?
Implicit in the collection is a possible critique of this question. Framing In The Tree We Planted as tree growth might show precisely how unlike a tree we grow after trauma. In this case, the suicide of a father. That’s why titles rotate in and out, be it unchanged (as in “Preservation,” “Sign,” “Symptom”) or with minute changes (as in “Hypnopomp 2008” and “Hypnopomp 2007”). It fits the intrusive flashbacks of PTSD and mirrors the seeming contradiction of circling the trauma in order to explain and avoid it simultaneously. It also fits the underlying saudade of the titular poem where “obituaries…are the outlines of people,/leaving life-shaped holes in want/of what makes memory.” The lyrical reminiscence is buried so deep in these lines that it would fit in the mouth of Hamlet. Looked at this way, tadros’ debut reads a bit like the inside of Hamlet’s head; tender, snarky, and laced with biting irony. These “life-shaped holes” – “exit wounds” as they’re purposefully called in the “Epilogue” – can be seen as absences that refer to an absence and the presence of that absence. Emerald borer tunnels in the psychological ash tree. It could put you in the mind of a book that also uses the image of holes to represent a present absence: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
In one of many entwined threads in Roy’s novel, a pair of twins are described as “a pair of actors trapped in a recondite play with no hint of plot or narrative” after their mother becomes “a Hole in the Universe through which darkness poured like liquid tar.” Echoes of Hamlet’s play-within-a-play aside, it underlines the way in which tadros’ debut ambivalently departs from her past work. Both Roy and Tadros’ lyricism aspire to an image of what recovery would look like despite differing in what is recovered. Both books rely on looping imagery, parallel structures, and non-linearity to reflect this process. Both books end with nothing more certain than the unknown. Roy’s final line is “tomorrow.” Tadros’ final line is “an absence to occupy holes.” Yet with these final lines there is the sense that Roy opens, Tadros solidifies. Look to the first “Preservation” from section V of The Tree We Planted:
Your wife played phone tag
with the detective
for months just trying
to trace the gun. He
care: a suicide
is a suicide.
Your younger daughter
woke up on the roof
that year and had her-
self committed, one
week, where your older
daughter and your wife
could not even bring
hot chocolate or
You’ll first notice that this stands in stark contrast to “intersperse:” it relies on a more traditional sense of space that emphasizes the poem’s narrativity. Then you’ll notice that “Preservation” is less lofty, more monotone, hushed. Almost anti-metaphor. It mimics a diarist’s urge to fossilize a moment in the moment of its becoming memory. Finally, look to the centerpiece of the poem: “a suicide/is a suicide.” This tautology is also the centerpiece of In The Tree We Planted. A far departure from “If I can’t have you/anywhere I’ll have you/everywhere.” It is what it is.
That’s not bad in itself. Imagists like HD did well with the barest of language, and the juxtaposition evokes the difficulty of writing about personal trauma. How it reduces language. How evocative this “absence” of style can be in conveying complex emotion. Yet imagists began with the moment of an image and, however traumatic the absence of a suicide, it is immeasurably difficult to condense lack into image. Their loss becomes burned into the retina as experience, but can only be contained in the lack of experience. Their absence is felt as a presence, but cannot function as presence. Even “Preservation” circles around an attempt to make loss tangible – nothing more tangible than the principle of non-contradiction – and realize the nigh-impossibility in the younger daughter’s unvisitable state. She cannot be visited by her present mother and sister, her absent father, nor by the world itself. She’s lost in contemplative reiteration in the same way all experience bleeds into meditation in In The Tree We Planted. “The distance between grief and survival,” Tadros calls it in the epilogue. It’s uncertain whether this distance truly concludes with a sense of a “later blossoming, the/ovular fruit hanging,” or if this is a 3rd act Mousetrap between soliloquies and further tragedy. Tragically self-negating.
A last note: beginning with the obvious nod of the dedication for “the man who was born on Christmas,” In The Tree We Planted And Buried You In is laced from beginning to end with Christian imagery. I leave this for last because I find it revealing as to why the collection feels like a theatrical exorcism, a meditation striving to be experience. Adam and Eve’s original sin led them out of Eden in fig leaves and created a state of guilt by association, whereas Jesus poisoned a fig tree and his crucifixion led to salvation by association. The father plays the dual role that Jesus plays in Christianity, ever-present while physically absent, hanging from wood like the various fruits that long tempted the Christian people. It’s therefore interesting that the collection ends with the potential salvation from an “ovular fruit.” Interesting because this embodies a struggle between the messianic and the eschatalogical impulses of the traumatized mind. The sense one person can lead us to a rock-steady life and also be the eradication of all steadied reality. Between the hypnapompic and the hypnagogic, that is. How could one say what they mean about such intensity? Those “drawers of wood that just/as easily could have served/as something else” which open the prologue say it all: a tree and a coffin. tadros works powerfully within this dynamic, but inevitably In The Tree We Planted is trapped where dreams may come but words may not. A paradoxical Christian end when one follows REM into the sleep of death.
About the reviewer: Justin Goodman graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. Having moved from Long Island, he now lives in the City with reviews in Cleaver Magazine and InYourSpeakers, and work in Italics Mine, 360 Degrees, and Counterexample Poetics.