Lea Graham’s Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You

by Claudia McQuistion

Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You
by Lea Graham
No Tell Books, $14.99, 68 pp.

“Crushed by smack or cosh, by rubbernecking/up against flapping, the brilliance of chickens/ ‘to altar’”. So begins Lea Graham’s first book of poems, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You, a collection that could easily be described as wild in the best possible sense. That wildness is ever-present in the lines above, which come from her opening poem “Crushed: A Preface,” where we are told the various definitions of “crush” according to the OED, as well the places and people which might inspire desire. The poem’s placement in the book is undoubtedly clever, for it not only serves as an introduction to the content (indeed, this book explores crushes in their many forms) but acquaints us with Graham’s dedication to ripe musicality and diverse vocabulary. “Crushed: A Preface” works well because it tells us to expect the unexpected. There are spellbinding leaps in that poem which we later recognize as trademarks of Graham’s work, for Hough & Helix is populated by poems which take us on strange journeys. In “Crush of Poppies,” we voyage from “the dream where we gather walnuts at heat lines” to “hiding in our mother’s closet waiting out twisters”. We see Cora Papadakis and Frank Chambers sip coffee at a roadside station in “Crush #19,” and “Westminster’s/blue-grey wash” in “Crush #90,” where the speaker revels in a painting by Childe Hassam. Cities, the countryside, art and pop culture—these are a handful of the worlds that Graham shuttles between in her collection.

But Graham’s examination of those different worlds is not limited to what’s on the map or might be discussed over dinner. When reading through Hough & Helix, it’s important to remember that these poems, after all, are about desire itself and how it is cultivated within us. This is apparent in “Crush #28,” when the speaker says

I like the look of your
big fat arms, legs like pools
for god’s sake, buck & wing

with me, let me die dying
of dengue to the radio,
swear fastballs mercurial

as rainsqualls in blue over
blue, smudging these dogwoods,
sleeping wet moons,

It is in passages like these where we can see Graham move from the inner world of longing to a physical space, one that can’t help but be influenced by the speaker’s embrace of her subject. “This world is tiny, impatient/these branches,” she writes, reminding us how our attraction to people, places, or things, makes the world more knowable. In other words, the crushes we carry with us crush our universe into something personal and compact, though no less beautiful or heartbreaking. For Graham, our inner world and our outer world are constantly at play, tugging at each other and making our lives worth writing about.

Like Berryman’s Dream Songs, the poems in Hough & Helix point to that tension between the real and imagined, the tangible and the veiled, and do not necessarily find despair in the gap between those things. In fact, Graham makes it a point to celebrate that disparity, and uses fables to show us how we often bring the static world to life through story. In “A Crush before the Sexual Revolution,” we hear how a young boy growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, “photographed Priscilla in gingham and pearls./She sang ‘sugar, cause sugar never was so sweet.’ At the edge/of Bell Pond. At the edge of Bell Pond. Later that summer she/ beaded her thighs with [his] initials. She carved them there.” Graham takes advantage of the tale’s grim nature by repeating the location of where Priscilla sang, invoking a song of her own. These brief lines teach the reader that we don’t need something legendary to happen to us in order to realize how strange and mythical the world is. The stories we hear and repeat from others can often do this for us instead. The other voices we listen to can resonate just as much as our own.

Perhaps this idea is what Hough & Helix celebrates the most. Yes, Graham does investigate our world and the way our desires swim inside of it, but her poems frequently include italicized lines where other speakers seem to interrupt the vision that is taking place. One notable example comes on the page after “A Crush for the Sexual Revolution,” in the poem “One for April”:

It’s not easy coming back from the dead
each year to lilac’s febrile pull, a wild

push of styptic plum & dogwood’s blood-plashed
petals—a press to mull: blemish, ration;

the language shoves, our shoulders put to: door,
cellar door, cellar door
— can you hear it?

Here we are introduced to another speaker, one who arrives at the approach of spring. Though this speaker may not be as defined as some of the others in this collection, it still brings with it a new language, one that makes the first speaker notice the changing season, and in turn, the shifting self. “It’s not easy coming back from the dead,” the speaker proclaims at first, reminding us that the visions in this collection may have relied on another voice in order to fully be seen.

The voices throughout this book are at play just like the inner and outer worlds that Graham’s speakers inhabit. She deftly weaves them all together, and has arranged her collection in such a way that her universe, filled with its particular “crushes” and stories, shines through. As we progress through Hough & Helix, we witness the assemblage of that universe, and see how it is described through short fragments and lists, as well as through poems with long lines that drift across the page. While the order of these poems unquestionably helps us latch on to her ideas, it is the way Graham ends so many of her poems that makes her work the most inviting. “The Jews, the Christians/ wanted meaning/ in every thing or act,” she writes in “Archaic Crush,” “to see God, perhaps,/ to know biblically./ Troubling, isn’t it?” By ending her poem with a question, she summons her readers into her vision, gesturing toward their voices just as she does to the others in her poems. This brilliant move is found within several of her works and complements her rendering of the world, where the voices of others make an indelible impression on how we view the places we travel to and the sights we see.

“There’s story & there’s story”, Graham writes, shrugging off her poems in “Palinode,” as if they were forgettable. With a wonderful lyric intensity, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You reveals our luscious world. Graham has a voice, and it sings.