Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Emergency Brake by Ruth Madievsky, Tavern Books, 2016.

Review by Nathan Goldman

Lungs, throats, doors: these images recur throughout Emergency Brake, the debut collection from poet Ruth Madievsky. Each names a portal, an opening where smoke or speech or someone may pass between inside and outside. "I think the body is a door," muses one poem’s speaker. Emergency Brake makes brilliant use of this insight, that to have a body is to dwell in a space—hinged, violable—that makes possible intimacy, but also intrusion. The speaker of this poem, titled "If the Body Is a Door," continues: "and what is a door / but a crime scene waiting to happen, / the way a needle waits to happen to a vein." Embodiment means life. But it also means danger.

Emergency Brake opens with "January," named for a month named for the Latin word for door. Playfully, the poem begins with an image of opening: "When January lifted its head / to a slow applause, / the hinges of everything alive / opened like fruit." Soon, the poem turns to the body. "I thought maybe we were made / of the same photons as light," the speaker says, thinking the body as porous to the point of incorporeality. But when the speaker confronts the reality of death, announced in an uncharacteristically stark line ("Eugene died"), the body’s penetrability becomes consequential: "I pricked the fingers / of many strangers, / took a head count of their blood." Emergency Brake thinks through this link between penetrability and mortality.

The body as portal is, of course, also an erotic image. Emergency Brake plumbs this possibility—"night opened us, / the envelopes we are" ("Hotel"); "I remember when your mouth / was a city I entered dancing" ("If the Body Is a Door"); "we will remember the doves we coaxed / from each other’s throats" ("Cactus")—but it also considers the limitations of this figuring of sexual intimacy. In "Bridge, Shadow, Hand," the speaker claims that "sex is not always about breaking and entering / though both involve thresholds and hands" and considers the beloved’s "mouth, / how it opens like a renaissance, / how it is always a metaphor for sex"—a subtle self-critique.

Among Madievsky’s greatest strengths is her ability to commit fully to her aesthetic while also delighting in self-effacing humor. Though at times the poems’ language lapses into awkwardness—"how my fingers were out partying all night / in the disco of your mouth" ("Cactus")—Madievsky’s linguistic judgment is nearly flawless. The coherence of Madievsky’s vision, paired with this witty self-consciousness—deep seriousness checked by deep humor—makes Emergency Brake a rare delight.

As an extension of Madievsky’s interest in the motion of opening, Emergency Brake abounds with sudden shifts. Line breaks and the word "or" act as hinges between divergent images, such as "coconut extract / or a bump of cocaine." Emergency Brake’s embrace of what I would call the poetics of the pivot—an aesthetic engagement with the shock of meaning in a sudden change—extends even to the act of interpretation. The final image of "If the Body Is a Door" opens up to a reading attentive to a shifting perspective. The poem, which is largely concerned with a meditation on the body in the wake of memories of abuse, ends with these stunning lines:

                         The waffle house will pretend
   No one was opened like a tangerine in its parking lot.
                                     The human heart will remain
                           the size of two fists.

The image of the fists that measure the heart can be read as the speaker’s, raised in self-defense, or as belonging to two—clutched together, an embrace. Each reading results in a radically different understanding of the poem. Madievsky primes the reader to appreciate the range of her poems’ possibilities. Emergency Brake announces a vital voice and vision, the first gasp of something special. Bracing yet raucous, vicious yet whimsical, the collection is an ode to the precariousness of being and the potential in becoming.