Mar 30, 2016

Review: Ruth Madievsky’s "Emergency Brake"

Maybe you recognize Ruth Madievsky’s name. Two of her poems (“Tiny Shotgun” and “Cactus”) were first published in Harpur Palate and can be found in her new book, Emergency Brake, which I’m thrilled to review. If you’re looking for knives to throw, keep walking.

Author Ruth Madievsky
For me, good poetry is immune to theory or definition. It’s kind of a physical response: when I read good poems, I stop reading. I open a blank page. I write until I can read again. I read. I stop reading. I open a blank page. I can’t sit still.

Good poetry is the rubber triangle to my kneejerk desire to tell stories. When I really love somebody’s work, the phrase couldn’t put it down is the opposite of truth. Good poems, no matter the subject, crackle with electricity; they energize me and demand engagement with both the poet and my own self. Poetry, after all, is communication. It’s connection. As readers, we create good poetry alongside the writer.

If Ruth Madievsky were sitting across from me, in front of the soaked Starbucks window being pelted with hail and my pink and white copy of Emergency Brake on the windowsill, I’d tell her, Ruth, I couldn’t stop putting it down. In the time it took me to read this book (which spanned over several weeks), I wrote poems about my hair, a crocus, addiction, the pressure to parent flawlessly, the Death Valley superbloom, and the first time I saw something burning on water. So, first things first: thanks, Ruth.

Two amazing things are happening in Emergency Brake, and they happen to be just what I need in a poetry collection: metaphors that leap and dazzle, guided from cover to cover by spoonfuls of narrative: “I want to tell you” and “I want to say something” and “Let’s play a game” are modest boats that carry metaphors like these: “Your collarbone is a balcony – / let my lips be the birds” and “the body is a pillbox / and God’s apology is orgasm” and “I used to wait for someone / to tug on the rope inside me. / I used to think I was held together / by the same things that hold a poem / together”.

Buy a copy here
At once I was transported back to my first years of reading poetry, when Natalie Goldberg urged me to say “what I want to say” and James Tate made me believe sharks could hold a grudge. For me, narrative and the bold metaphor are two plates I’ve got to keep spinning; too much attention on one lets the other wobble.

At times I felt I was watching fist-size fires being sent down the river on lily pads. Will the narrative hold? I wondered, and Where’s this thing gonna land? At times I found myself grasping for the poet’s hand, pushed to the edge of accessibility and reeled back in at the nick of time by intense tenderness. In “Bobsled”, the speaker steers sexuality around the winter pond of memory and relationships; she wants her name “to amount to more / than a bone passed between two dogs” so she catapults us into space, catches us, then grounds us in vulnerability: “I don’t want meanness / to bobsled the icy bank of my thoughts. / When I open, I want to be the umbrella, / not the pocketknife.”

I’ve read hundreds of books of poems that capture loss (perfectly brilliant books), but perhaps that’s another accomplishment I find myself returning to over and over in Emergency Brake. Where other poets build on loss, Madievsky grapples with ownership and reclaiming, finding and sorting. And it all comes down to the body, poem after poem. By the time I finished this book, I’d reconsidered my own body in all its long lost forms: a knock, a square of chocolate, bubble wrap, darkness, a door, a dime, a shotgun, box and box cutter, blueberry, scalpel, charley horse, a broken window – I could keep going, but your boat might sink.

Essentially, Emergency Brake is filled with boxcar after boxcar of metaphors you’ll wish you wrote, but Madievsky got to them first. You’ll want to hate her if it wasn’t for that sugary child jumping up and down behind your ribs, yelling, “Do it again! Do it again!”

Abby E. Murray has a Ph.D. in English from Binghamton University and an MFA from Pacific University. She served as director of the Binghamton Poetry Project in upstate New York for two years and taught poetry workshops in public schools, libraries and a veterans center until she moved to Washington state in 2015. Today, Abby teaches creative writing at the University of Washington-Tacoma and offers free workshops for military dependents there. She lives in Puyallup with her husband, daughter and two cats.