Rhett Iseman Trull’s ‘The Real Warnings’


The Real Warnings by Rhett Iseman Trull
Anhinga Press, 94 pages, $15.00

Rhett Iseman Trull’s first book The Real Warnings has a lot of really beautiful poems in it and several unsparingly precise ones. The poems that I love best in this book are poems of voice, but not actually of persona. Here is an example of what I mean from a poem called “The Last Good Dream,” a poem that describes the world of a coastal town in summer, and which gathers strangeness and sadness about it, so that the third person treatment of a little girl riding her bike makes us confront the sadness of divorce in a way free from the manipulative claims of the autobiographical expository details:

It is the moment when doves light on dormant phone lines and boys find love in fish nets and crab cages, in the salty chorus of the wharf. We can almost hear them, six blocks east, the lobstermen bringing in the catch and their daughters in braids telling secrets, a cloister of curls and intentions, waiting for fathers whose bones smell of fish to carry them home. By habit our arms touch as we listen to the cadence of the first evening rain tapping to the west near the cemetery and the eight-stool pub. A girl coasts her bike down the street, bells on her handlebars ringing. It is the hour before women wash dishes and men go out, before the gulls flock towards Captain Calabash, the shore's single light for miles. And we give with unthinned hearts, little knowing how, even if banked by the best words and buoyed by honest, love can fail. Or maybe we do know and unharbor ourselves anyway.

How wonderful that we are ‘unharbored’ at the end of this poem, cast into the danger of knowing love, of actual risk, and also fallen from the world that can merely recite the attractive, descriptive facts. This is a wise poem. It's a personal poem, sure, but it also has the impersonal force of a rock, perhaps because it gives itself so entirely to movement.

The best poems in The Real Warnings have this quality both of movement, and of personal impersonality. Trull is a generous poet, given to neither self-pity nor rancor, able to delight in others and the world. “The Real Warnings Are Always Too Late,” the first poem in the book, is her proud apology to her parents for being such a lunatic as a teenager:

I'll dent the garage door with my head, siphon Crown Royal from your liquor cabinet, jump from a gondola in Venice. I'll smash my ankle with a hammer, drive through stop signs with my eyes closed, cost you thousands in medical bills. Forget about sleeping.

Her elegy “Signs” has this quality, too: “Tonight: no moon, no stars. I never realized before/ how noisy the planets are. I praise their choice/ to be absent...” Because a good poem is a slung stone, she doesn’t have to tell us too many details about her friend Sarah, who has died in “Talking All Day to the Dead.” She can end the poem with an image: “The dog’s water would tremble if his bowl wasn’t empty.”

Trull’s poems have their largest and most generous reach when she resolves a poem in the concreteness of images, rather than with a concern for herself or others as characters whose fates or psychologies must be resolved, as in “Study of Motion”:

Hanna, drawing chalk poinsettias on the sidewalk, once said, Pursue Joy Now and sounded solid, like the TV emergency signal. You get the feeling she fears nothing, which can’t be true, but it’s nice to believe, especially now that you’re alone on the side of the road, engine still, no white towel tied to the mirror.

At this point, we might ask, “Who is Hanna?” The only thing we find out is that she was twelve years the poet’s senior and moved to California. The poem ends with what we all see on the highways that pulse with American ambition dead-ending:

It’s the sound of sirens that prompts you to get off the side of the road back into traffic, to smooth the creases of the map and join the flatbed trucks, the horses’ tails swishing through the slits of trailers, the station wagons hauling their families before a banner of exhaust.

Reading these lines, I have to feel that this is the country where most of us live.

When other people and her own feelings are treated as externalized as these things seen on the road, Trull’s warmth and generosity are rhapsodic, as in “Lovers on a Walk&rdqo; and in her mordantly funny and catty poem about sexual jealousy “Lotion Cigarettes Candles Wine.” When she sets out to write about herself in relation to her mother or brother, things get less energetic:

his mother who wanted divorce, who grabbed his hand weeping the mall last week, praying aloud right there in the middle of the crowds; and his sister they call clinically depressed, suicidal, though he tries to explain that’s not possible, they don’t know her, weren’t there when she was young and told him all her secrets, all her dreams, leaping from the bed in her Wonder Woman underwear.

Though there is much to admire here and in other poems about her family, particularly in those about her brother, in terms of warmth, precision and compassion, I feel that the material might lead Trull into putting story over language, and the poems occasionally wobble. A poem built around the conceit of giving advice, “Naming the Baby for Mark and Terra’ initially feels like more of a triumph than it actually is when compared to other poems in the book that are of a higher level of intensity. Sometimes it seems as if almost all books of what gets called narrative poems feature a few poems that could be called high concept, lighter in tone and built around a structural gimmick. On the other hand, “The House of Pain” is a parable in which a character called Doctor Loneliness—disturbing as the character of the host in George Herbert’s final poem called “Love”—teaches the poet “to loathe and love/ the yes that saves you.” What else can I say about this poem? Frank Bidart should watch out.

The Real Warnings makes us confront an issue central to writing both fiction and poetry. Does one write memoir and focus on the things that have happened to one’s self, which can be assimilated into shaped narratives or does one dwell in experience and write in honor of obsession and nerve about the people one meets, the things one sees, thoughts, all the stuff that gets us away from our mirrors, and which is essentially a lonesome habit of mind? The Real Warnings suggests that Rhett Iseman Trull can be both sorts of poet. A central sequence to the book is “Rescuing Princess Zelda,” a series of poems about Trull’s experience in a mental institution as a teenager, and one of the best things about this sequence is that it is about the other people that she knew there as much as about herself—Josh, who fell for a Duke undergraduate from an abnormal psych class and later committed suicide, and the charismatic beauty named May, whom Trull feels lucky with a deep and precious sense of transgression to hear weep wildly at night after loving her braggadocio and tough talk in the recreation room during the day. Throughout The Real Warnings, the spirits of obsession, generosity and scrutiny are intense, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get many more poems like this in years to come.

DAVID BLAIR was born in 1970. He grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has degrees from Fordham University and the creative writing program at UNC Greensboro. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Fence, The Greensboro Review, The Harvard Review, Ploughshares, Verse, and been featured in the anthologies Zoland Poetry and The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He is an associate professor at The New England Institute of Art in Brookline, Massachusetts. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with his wife Sabrina and daughter Astrid.