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Michigan Bookmark: “play dead” holds a mirror up to our culture’s misogyny and violence

Nov 1, 2016

When I’m reading Francine J. Harris’ poetry, I’m not doing anything else.  It is the insistence of the voice, the images as troubling as they are beautifully wrought, the way the ink drifts from the left margin with the weight of her words, the indelible shape this technique makes on the page, that stays with the reader.  Her newest collection, play dead, challenges us in the way that only the most daring poetry can.  Harris’ language is so direct, so stark, that the poetry remains accessible, even as she experiments with form.

Because many of the poems in this collection engage lyrical prose to get at timely philosophical concepts, it is tempting to lump Harris in with writers like Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson, whose innovations with hybrid forms have achieved both literary and commercial success in recent years.  play dead stands alone, however, because of the genius of her linguistic play.  Take the closing lines of the poem, “wounded, the sway it aches”: “O street serenade, singsonging ooohdon’tbesomean in between the clearing // and bus stop, the first holler I get / I might for strip”.  Here the unconventional rhetoric subverts the power of the male gaze and its accompanying catcalls. Where many contemporary poets exercise experiment for experiment’s sake, Harris’ experimentation is always grounded in purpose.

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Theme and argument catalyze poetic technique, in other words. The opening poem, “in,” begins with the couplet, “The body starts a wind when it gets broken into. At night, when the leaves can’t sleep / the black bark is one eye open and the snap vine dozes with its thorn in reach".  This couplet is arguably a microcosm of the entire book given the themes of sexual assault and toxic misogyny that show up later. These pieces don’t merely offer up laments for passive female victims, though; they seethe at times with righteous invective. As Harris writes in “please don’t trance your rabbit,” “There’s nothing cute. and not a toy to flip, and won’t wind / up. and doesn’t kick back to say from the inside, hit. say from the inside, terror”.  Here the rabbit, the preyed upon, is no longer cute, is nothing to toy with. 

Earlier I said that the images in play dead are as troubling as they are beautifully wrought. In part this is because Harris not only acknowledges our cultural predilection for misogyny and violence, but her verse holds up a mirror to the readers’ role in this system. Take the poem, “in case,” which highlights how institutions like schools and hospitals fail our society’s vulnerable: “One punches thigh open, another / writes script.  pens / white gown and white banner and white sheet and white / cover and dove.  and white birch.  and parchment.  and white / cinder and slab brick”.  The insistence again, embodied in the repetition, the teleological failure of institutions by virtue of their white maleness.   

This book is ultimately worthy of a study far more in-depth than this short review, which is to say it is an important book. Reading play dead this autumn just might constitute a civic duty.  

John Freeman publishes poetry under the name "Cal Freeman." He is the author of the book, Brother of Leaving, and the chapbook Heard Among the Windbreak

Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.