The book fits in your hand: it can go inside the back pocket of your jeans. It is truly portable, and the tactile encounter of the book, I believe, conditions the reading experience. There is that feeling of manageability, contrary to its title, Slabs, that is being invoked by poet Brittany Billmeyer-Finn‘s second collection, released in 2016 from Timeless, Infinite Light.
The book is arranged in two parts. The language is fragmentary—as a reader, it seems as though I am eavesdropping. The conversation has been going on long before the reader opened the book, and now we are entering in and out of the narrative at any given point. What is beginning? What is ending? How do I situate and locate myself in relationship to the text?
There are voices here—that is, if I perceive the text in quotation marks as dialogue, as words (or worlds) belonging or assigned to another, said by another.
There are questions: What marks us? What saves us? What dream? Why did you wake me? How & why?
There are lists. There are back slashes that offer more than one way, another way, options, and you read the multiplicity. The language cannot rest in its own sentences, because these sentences are without end stops, without comma. Where is the breath?
Billmeyer-Finn answers: “[White] space, particularly those little awkward gaps intermittently placed in the middle of certain lines, perhaps those spaces are operating as a sort of punctuation, offering a pause or a leap-perhaps without the periods then a full stop is being avoided in some way like a full stop might symbolize some sort of arrival to a perceived truth but I’m not interested in the stop so much as the process. Other forms of punctuation are illuminated instead, like the hesitation of the small blank gaps, the quotation marks hugging borrowed language mixed with my own, the question marks, there are always questions and even the ampersand though more of a symbol is significantly present, a bit of connection.”
Location: liminal and gray with the muted falling and rolling of avocadoes
Billymeyer-Finn writes “I call out for the Subject” and this section is very much an invocation of memory, of a past yet not past but re-imagined in the now, “in how I mold around her skin.”
Part One explores where we are in relationship to time and place, in relationship to our thoughts as well as how our thoughts make a field in which we operate:
this ownership of thought a weapon against a sea
of transparent forms (10)
A spell is being cast, a healing is probably happening, a consciousness is being inhabited, awakened. A way into is being found:
a bundle of mugwort from a friend
a stick of sage from an altar
a broken crystal from my pocket
& three tarot cards: 1. for letting go
2. for validation
3. for reaching towards (12)
In thinking about magic, Billymeyer-Finn offers us this: “The magic in the book is a little more mundane, little personal day-to-day rituals of pulling tarot, carrying magical gifts from friends in my pocket, something to hold and be reminded of connections, that these connections are a part of internalizations of myself. I am also thinking about my own body in space, site and memory, thinking through the work of identity and privilege, where and when my body shows up in relation in context and what this means.”
Volume: chatty, populated with voices; thoughts come alive
Location: home(s), body, and bodies stick together, warm and milky, rising
This section is the bulk of the collection, 10 poems, which are titled with words and phrases in parentheses. Billmeyer-Finn says, “The parentheses are sort of a key or whisper of what can be found in the poem.” The titles begin with “the,” giving a sense of definitiveness, a sense that the object/subject is stable, but it must be remembered that that stability is only parenthetical.
“(the witness),” “(the scam),” and “(the world” are the poems from Part Two I was most moved by—the play with language, the arrangement of words presenting a re-seeing.
My eye was drawn to this line: “you know that I know that you know” (28).
The “I” is like an equal sign, reflecting back the repetition of words, and so, before and after the I is sameness, the pull is equal on the chest and back of the I, is a knowing that stands dutifully on each side.
“sucking the tongue
commands the taste” (28)
And this is a moment in the poem where I perform this action and so this action becomes truth on the page and embodied. It’s like, here, the poem witnesses me as the reader and I witness the narrator by being the narrator, and our mouths are in agreement.
The poem opens with phrases in quotation marks. Who is speaking? Or do I take this for those times in conversation when we say, “quote unquote” and we then do that finger thing to signify that these are not my words. But when you think about it, these are our words. They belong to us, even when we cite others.
This poem addresses labels, how we name ourselves so maybe we can be better spoken. Near the middle of “(the scam),” Billmeyer-Finn gives us a list, free of quotation marks, of 16 labels, that begins with “queer,” then includes “catholic & then agnostic & then atheist & then witch,” and concludes on “hopeless bottom.”
What is the scam here? Is it that gaping white space, which appears on page 41, between “the split” and “representing a great sadness” the scam?
Billmeyer-Finn elaborates on the usage of white space: “The white space offers something to the reader, a way of reading, the small gaps that show up mid line in this work is perhaps similar to an ellipses and also a pause, a moment of consideration and hesitation regarding what might come next or what follows.”
Here I take notice: There is the title, “(the scam)” and within the poem it is “ ‘the scam’ “. It has gone from being an aside, to being the dialogue, to being something recorded as said or to be said.
This poem is the third poem to the last. There is explicit location; there is a feeling of ground, a sense of place. Even though water is a prominent element in this poem, it seems to find land here.
Texas, Michigan, the acronym HOMES (Lake Huron Lake Ontario Lake Michigan Lake Erie Lake Superior), the intimacy of lovers, a clear sense of body in relationship to other bodies, celestial and terrestrial. The narrative is threaded together with lyrical leaps, the ending is a gorgeous and queer surprise: “& we all stood around pouring water/ into each other’s eyes”.
I asked Billmeyer-Finn about how she’s deploying a queer poetics in this text, and her response was “by investigating my own queerness through various sites, relations and elements; there is always water and the sky. . . . Slabs operates as something out of my own body, desire, self-reflection…is something about my own internalizations of my experience and encounters. I think it was something I needed for myself and the questions that came out of that need was around queerness, love and kinship, trying to locate those things personally, poetically and politically-the intersections of these.”
When I close the book, holding all of it in my hands, I consider the title again. Slabs. Which are pieces of something that used to be a part of a whole, and this work is a puzzling together, a desire to connect to something so there is fulfillment and completion. And I do feel complete, from each fragmentary morsel.
Read more about Brittany Billmeyer-Finn’s work in Weird Sister’s review of her book the meshes.
Cave Canem graduate fellow Arisa White received her MFA from UMass, Amherst, and is the author of Black Pearl, Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. She teaches in the low-residency BFA program at Goddard College and is a member of the board of directors for Nomadic Press. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing that Happened, her newest collection from Augury Books, was nominated for a 29th Lambda Literary Award.