Reviewed by Matthew Smith
Take Kelly Everding’s word for it: “It is dangerous to walk away / and leave a book open.” Purchasing her slender, striking chapbook Strappado for the Devil is like purchasing a playful, well-crafted grimoire. As much enjoyment and interest as you might draw from its language (both elusive and instructional), the physical presence of the words printed in ink grows disconcerting. Everding’s conscious mingling of smirk and shudder is palpable even in the first poem, as an oblique discussion of fowl worship finds its way along “a dark path traveled / only by chickens.” From the start, Everding offers us coy, unsettling transactions with the childlike frankness of a sociopath: “They met on a park bench / and exchanged eggs. / They raised each other’s young / like their own.”
Named after the satirical work by 17th-century poet Richard Braithwaite (as well as an antique torture device from which victims are suspended by the wrists), Everding’s book of nineteen poems is both cruel and indulgent, never too shy to tease (“I go unpunished / all day and night”). For every moment of incoherence, however, the book welcomes us back in. In “Infinite Granite” Everding’s lines gush and pulse like an incantation, with many of the words apparently in Welsh or some other foreign language. As the poem draws to a sharp, insistent close (“I killed plants. I moved too slowly / for them, increments of fever, / black other, thing story”), the speaker mocks our confusion but then draws us like animals again into her spell:
Playar fiskum yn creplos, kill, cry, kiss.
There was fear of never, fear inflated oblong.
I cannot move because I am so thick.
When was I ever worthy of your trust?
We’re all here in the same place,
our glacially slow reactions
to bleth, mive, kife.
Sections of Strappado for the Devil read like a witch’s memoir/instruction manual, but the specter of the book itself––the forms with which Everding has woven this glamor––constantly shimmers behind the anecdotes and lessons. In the elegant but sickening “Exes for Eyes” she writes: “She will peel off her clothes–– / her skin wound in ropes and rags, / her language a hook and a worm.” In “Beliefs Concerning Eggs” she sculpts a correlative for the process of poetry:
At midnight, let the white drip from the shell
into a glass two thirds full of water.
Place your palm over the glass’s rim and turn
upside down. The albumen will settle
into a shape. A ship? A tiny desk? An elephant?
It will foretell your future occupation.
More familiar to the reader of contemporary literary magazines are Everding’s games with syntax. While such play might, in a different context, seem merely cuteness (or, worse, more anti-lyric cud), surrounded by the creeping text of Strappado for the Devil, these dismantlings chill rather than amuse. In “Centrifuge” Everding tells us “the prefix shrieks like carps / in their final ascension,” and in “And Then Usurped His When” she narrates another metapoetic passage: “Eventually left / behind the period agog, / he saw well into the / next sentence.” Even when the language slips for a while from the reader’s grasp, the words seem to be gaining momentum, whether or not you are catching everything that sweeps past:
It is the Friday before the end
in the note you tore from my hands.
The moon tears itself from the sky
with a prolonged shriek.
I see your organs working.
It is the day after and another reprieve.
Despite all the superstitious images (“rats,” “a cat,” “a church bell,” “a comet,” “nails,” “sticks and shovels,” “a loom,” “entrails,” “coiled snakes,” “horses,” “tears,” “a bloodstained sea,” and “bits of shadow” among others), the vocabulary of modern science bubbles up occasionally in these poems. The tone, however, suggests anything but reverence for empiricism. If anything, Everding appears to be slicing with equal disdain into the immanent and the transcendent: “Oxygen commingled with carbon that night. / Mysterious bruise arisen from what collision?”; “On the long dusty road / between neutron and positron / we circled our camels”; “Solar plumes lick the atmosphere, curl and blacken.”
Pervasive and subtle as a watermark, the simplest voice in Strappado for the Devil is also the most redemptive. That a lyric speaker hovers over the book––injecting traces of humanity––is perhaps unremarkable; that this speaker’s world honestly seems to be the bleak world of the book’s ongoing hex is crushing. Sometimes these glimpses appear as self-contained poems, as in “Technology of Dead Voices”: “A voice came from it. / His voice left his body. / I trace my finger along a path / that ends right here.” More often the momentary respites nestle inside hostile poems, as in the otherwise icy “Unseen,” which concludes: “I believed in air, in the heart / beat. I believed I left one place / and arrived in another. / I believed I grew older.”
Slitting open contemporary language and implanting in it old, forgotten forces, Everding never shrinks from horror. The poems, however, do not estrange the reader from the text so much as they jab tines into a few tender spots––the better to keep the reading lively. The text’s focus, even when it eludes coherent gloss, is shared human experience. Strappado for the Devil just takes an unorthodox (and perhaps left-hand) path to get there:
And and And.
One could not distinguish
girders from souls,
the sun doing its job.
We are receptacles of grief.
We are breathing rectangles.
Then then Then.
We take the shape
of the thing that moves us.