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Book Review: Organic Chemistry

Rachel Hadas

Poisons and Antidotes: Poems
Andrea L. Fry
Deerbrook Editions, 2021

The title of this book led me to expect something gothic, spiky, edgy. But this strong and variegated collection of poems is more complicated than that. Perhaps, though Fry certainly eschews easy optimism, the antidotes prove more powerful than the poisons. Fry’s toughness, sanity, and wry humor assert themselves again and again—but assert themselves in different guises.

The wide variety of tones and modes here is both a strength and a weakness. A few of the poems read almost like short stories; “The Renderer,” for example, is spoken in the voice of a woman driving the carcass of a beloved horse away from the man who’s arriving to render the horse into glue or horsemeat. The poem has a plot, characters, a vividly drawn scene. Elsewhere, Fry channels a teenage boy (“‘Consider Your Man Card Reissued’”) or a cave dweller (“Ancient Man from Chauvet Cave Speaks”) or a man known only by his initials who carved his name into a sequoia (“Jack Bildner’s Ghost”). These soliloquies, less fiction-like than “The Renderer,” remind me how rare it seems to have become for poets to speak in voices not their own.

Two strong poems in the third person manage to combine narrative and lyric. In “The Secret,” a girl hiding “in the underworld beneath her family’s porch” “speaks her secret to herself,” and then, mysteriously and beautifully, “the world’s whispers / turn to voices, and the voices speak the answers / to the questions.” That we never know precisely what the girl’s secret is (many possibilities suggest themselves) is part of the poem’s spell. A darker poem, also incantatory, is “He Will Come in from the Fields,” the very title of which feels ominous. The innocence still delicately present in “The Secret” is violated in this poem, whose length and refrain function both as foreshadowing and as a possible apotropaic gesture—maybe nothing so bad will happen after all.

That girl under the porch reminded me of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. Indeed, a few Plathian moments stand out in Fry’s work, especially in her wonderful cameos: “Each petal point a corner / of a twisted pinwheel, swastika in purple petticoat, / these plain assassins live / demurely in the / dung and meadow” (“Jimsonweed”); “a little gang /of white supremacists, a litter of pit bulls hammered senseless … white charcoal / briquettes that could burn down the neighborhood with one match” (“Mothballs”); “It was the same summer my grandmother wore that apron, / a pattern of cheerful yellow tomahawks sprinkled with hearts, // smeared with Sunday’s bacon grease and syrup. As she prepared / noon supper, she washed the cow tongue in the sink // so tenderly, like she was giving a baby its bath” (“Civilized”).

All these images suggest Fry’s ability to link beauty and violation, tenderness and dread. That linkage is what her title means, and what some of her strongest poems articulate. “The Glitter of the Simple” is a kind of negative ars poetica, full of hypotheticals that the poem ends by rejecting—as if the subjunctive mood hadn’t forewarned us. The poem begins “Oh, I would divide the world into binaries…. Simply by appearances / I would judge.” Refraining from such a black and whiteness isn’t easy: “The responsibility of understanding/extenuating circumstances/exhausts me. …” “My animal brain / is too weary, too lazy to carry/ all the infinitesimal gradations/ that live within the range. / It is too much to fathom.” But not fathoming would mean staying at the level of the superficial: “The surface iridescence of the beetle’s / wing would be everything. How clean/ the world would be. / And damned.” It’s an option the poet emphatically rejects.

“Warm Season Grasses” is another poem that yields to a wise passivity, a letting things be without categorizing or controlling: “How happy it makes me that nothing / requires my bending it. I am tired and ready to let / things be as they are.”

Most of the poems here refuse cleanness and damnation. On the contrary, they embrace complexity with the wise and passionate gratitude of someone who has lived a full and complicated life. There are contradictions here—and why not? A few of the poems in Poisons and Antidotes are biting social satire, skewering a gun advertisement (“’Consider Your Man Card Reissued’”), binge drinking in colleges (“Fall Orientation”), idiotic slogans (“Don’t Let Anyone Dull Your Sparkle!”), or the wooden language of legal documents (“Advance Directive”). But the poems I think I’ll return to are seasoned and rich, beyond anger though not beyond a sense of absurdity. The last poem here, “The Gnarled and Fantastic” (note that the title yokes contrasting qualities, as does the title of the collection as a whole) is less about weariness than about work—or at least it begins by thinking about work and moves onward and outward from there. “The Gnarled and Fantastic” is too long to quote in full, but this ample excerpt should give a sense of the poem’s heft and lift-off. I think of the soul in “Sailing to Byzantium” clapping its hands and singing.

“I don’t want a soul-crushing job,” my nephew says.
And so, I look down at my chest as if to check

my own soul. And yes, it is crushed!
So, I tell him, “They’ve all been soul-crushing, every one.”

Work that is on rare occasion harrowing—but mostly boring.
Sometimes, Ian, if I’m sitting quietly

in my chair at work, the lights go off
because the motion sensor thinks I don’t exist.

I flail my arms to restore my station
in the universe.

I’ll take my place among the other trillion cogs,
even take a perverse pleasure in never standing

outside the world’s drill. I can only be among
those who embrace some routine—

those who sell, scrub, collate, slice onions, cut out
gallstones, tally, enter data, teach a child to wash

her hands, lay wire, pour concrete, test urine,
convince judges, hold meetings.

Most everyone’s a doer of unmemorable things,
every job a sledgehammer to some other impulse—

call it your soul if you wish.
But why shouldn’t the soul have to work

like the rest of our being? Like the gut, the lungs,
the bowels or heart?

The soul must be sufficiently crushed to escape!

Unmemorable things? Andrea Fry is an oncology nurse practitioner. She is also the writer of courageous, yeasty, vivid, and wise poems.