Beth Bachmann, CEASE, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. $17.
Any reader familiar with Beth Bachmann’s work will remember her first book, Temper: a stunning, lyric obsession with a sister’s murder. Do Not Rise followed and dealt with the fallout from that murder and the post-traumatic stress and pervasive emotional turmoil that survivors of trauma might be at war with for the rest of their lives. Her new collection, CEASE, continues in this vein while in many ways being an expertly eerie manifesto against Trumpism. The poems here are a command against violence, anxiety, and fear—as if the speaker says, “please, cease” again and again. But this plea (and within it, the idea that violence won’t cease no matter how hard we beg) is complicated by the idea that healing might be as visible in the poems as water is, if we’re willing to plunge in and do the work. This book of poems is for any survivor, and it’s an urgent reminder that you can’t have peace without a violent desire for it. The poems seem to sing in praise of the way pain can mold us into something terrifyingly strong. They are a call to fiercely cling to life, even in those moments when the trauma refuses to ebb.
CEASE circles the idea of survival like a hawk, rotating around the personal and the larger apocalyptic so that the two are almost interchangeable. The book is organized around four sprawling sections, all titled “wall,” with hushed, prosaic poems in between. The “wall” poems hold us strong, allowing the “rooms” in between to wander, to creep, and to take more conceptual associative leaps. Bachmann herself says in an interview with the Rumpus: “until I saw the wall, I couldn’t see that what was inside it could become so volatile—is the room defined by the wall or the other way around?” The answer in CEASE is both, and that’s evident in the first “wall” poem immediately:
to keep the peace
we need a wall to fall to our knees before
to all things an architecture each body its own boundary the air
deliberate so many moves between one opening careful to keep the wall
clear of camouflage clear in its threat
so many patterns have holes
Within the first two lines, the wall’s ability to keep peace is directly countered by someone falling to their knees, because in CEASE walls are faulty. They can only act as safeguard for so long. They need, always, to be recognized, addressed, and then torn down. This tearing down can’t help but to resonate in this first poem and throughout the collection on a socially thematic level—a wall we all would surely help tear down if it were ever built. And it also speaks to those patterns within us that we long refuse to admit. But, in this first “wall” poem, patterns have holes, and something will never fail to creep through.
The poems after this unpack the larger ideas that sprawl among this book’s scaffolding, and they do so insistently, repetitively, and without caesura or punctuation. In “piece,” Bachmann writes, “rain is the god is in between us released by repetition the river permitting horse / after horse.” It is scary to repeat, to persist in the face of so much violence, PTSD, anxiety, and so many threats from the outside world against any and all vulnerable bodies. But, as these lines imply, from repetition comes release. These lines are both hopeful and terrifying. The poem’s title itself, an obvious play on peace (calmness along with fragmentation) does this also, and Bachmann is able, here and throughout the book, to shake the ground beneath the reader’s feet. Inherent in the act of surviving is instability. Through forced and repeated examination of what unsteadies us, we may achieve survival. There is a back-and-forth quality here that is expertly mirrored in the poems’ forms, as the reader is forced to parse through each line, discerning different syntactical arrangements and connotations with every read. Bachmann says to distrust walls, any lasting serenity, and language itself. How true that is, this distrust formed in our chests by trauma enacted on us against our will.
Acting as both cleanser and threat, rain is pervasive in CEASE as well. In the second ”wall,” Bachmann writes:
if no water no self-reflection
what is force other than wanting
to be free from waste one thing always heading
toward us alone the water not breached because
not dammed rush shelter thirst intermittent for everyone left alive
Here, water quenches and drowns. Readers will immerse themselves in it, however, in order to see a way out. This poem warns against repressing what is scariest in the speaker, while also lamenting that the water we can’t breach will continue to flood.
Two of the most memorable room poems are “peace” and “& love” near the end of the second section of CEASE. These adjacent poems act as supplication and answer, so that “peace” frames peace “as fragile as speech” while “& love” answers, “I’d slit the throat of any animal for / you I’d break every bone in my hand my body is a vessel a temple a bell.” The poems in CEASE are a call to action. The “you” in “& love” is love itself, and Bachmann’s speaker is chillingly tenacious in her trying. And, in the arc of Bachmann’s books, I can’t help but love this speaker’s refusal to let love go, her insistence on accepting and fighting for herself or any vulnerable body. When it comes to the act of freeing ourselves from trauma, there is always compassion to be had and work to be done.
CEASE as a collection is forceful and tender. The “wall” poems make deft use of white space, looming over the rest of the book as if they were support rails, while the poems in between are cramped, hard-hitting at the top of the page so that their images echo through the lower half’s white space, forcing a sort of anxiety on the reader as they work their way through the speaker’s struggles. It’s as if the speaker is writing from within a room, slipping messages through the window bars, whispering and watching those whispers echo off the walls. The ultimate message is not just that walls have cracks, which will eventually bring them down, but that the cracks within a person are what can make that person so vital, alive, and capable. Bachmann writes in the final “wall” section:
we need one more for a territory
to return to
coming & going contained in we cannot wait
to draw the water sweet bridge lips
become animal & the animal becomes me
Walls tumble down here, revealing other walls, other trapped and grappling selves, and other ways of resisting the violence of the world and the violence in one’s own brain. Then, “all we need for peace is permission,” Bachmann writes, and the reader will sigh with relief to think that if we seek peace, we will eventually reach it. And just one line later, the reader learns all we need for peace is “permission / to trespass.” Bachmann’s poems feel haunted by past traumas and resigned to examine them repeatedly, again and again. The wall can’t keep bad things out forever, says Bachmann. But cross over the wall, so that you might travel through the lake, through violence, and into the light.
-Brandi Nicole Martin