Born and raised in Albuquerque, Erin Adair-Hodges writes with a sort of Southwestern expansiveness, all that empty desert that swallows up our longing and loneliness and pushes us toward the big questions of existence (“which way, how strong, what for?” as the final poem in the book, “Triskelion,” concludes).
The very title of her debut collection, winner of the 2016 Agnes Lynch Starett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press, rings with a triumphal cry of carpe diem. We may not know what we’re doing here, but we’re damn sure going to try our best to find out and make the most of it.
In the poem “Pisces,” which begins as a sort of joke (“Kurt Cobain, Patty Hearst and I / walk into our birthday bar…”) she writes
By the door, a crowd of people
peer from the street because they think
our sadness means we know something
true. Maybe we do.
As the philosophers say, the questions are more important than the answers.
Many of these poems are anchored in the Southwest, though they often feel more like dreamscape than landscape. “Nuestra Señora de Belén,” (“She’s so mean everything sounds true.”), “Girl, Know Your History, Belén, New Mexico,” “In Barstow” (“I am a scientist inventing / new ways to be lonely. / I get bonuses every year.”): Adair-Hodges’ poems map a geography of resistance to despair but also pinpoint that despair vividly, as if placing pins into that wall map – there … and there … and there.
“Domestic Geography,” indeed, maps the boundaries of the dreamscape with the precision of vivid images, likewise expansive as the desert, with futility, yearning, determination.
We think the neighbor boy shows my baby sister his penis but we are not sure.
He becomes a man and dies in Iraq
like lots of people. My father served in Asia but did not fight in any way
they give medals for.
At home everything is about jotos: Batman and Joto, Michael Jackson Joto,
I cry though I am not sure why. I cry for Ethiopia and save my change in a
Folger’s can. I cry for Charlie Brown
not the football part, which it seems like he deserves, but for when he gets
Let’s All Die Happy maps the loneliness of motherhood, charts the tragic despair of adolescence. “Afterbirth Abcedarian,” an alphabet poem from A to Z, which begins, “After I shoved him into the scrubbed world,” concludes: “At night he cries,
yearns for the wordless to fill him, but I have
zeroes for eyes, a drawing of a heart for a heart.
“In the Black Forest” echoes this existential blankness: “Some weeks
no one says my first name, no one’s
tongue flicks the last letter out.
“Pantoum: For My Mother” (“What awaits us, after the unpetaling of her head…”) and “Portrait of the Mother: 1985” (“First there was the word and the word was okay. / Okay the apartment’s rented floor, new child…”), poems about her own mother, draw the quiet despair of compromise as well, as if locating the little dots of towns on the vast empty map. “My Son, the Night Light, the Dark” makes the whole territory plain:
but I lay my body next to his and ask him
what he sees in his head. No one, he whispers
likes me. As if he’s read from the book
I wrote. I press him into me to swallow
such words and remind him he was invented
to be loved. He is five and wishes he wasn’t
Adair-Hodges equally captures the sheer confusion of adolescence in her allusive, vivid verses. “On a Line Overheard in a Crowd of Middle School Cheerleaders” begins: “I love you, but your nails are a nightmare // and there is something savage inside each of us….” It ends: “These are terrible times
to be alive if you are anyone else,
the world an unthimbled thumb and we the glorious pins.
“The High School Principal’s Daughter” is a monologue in the voice of the title character, an alienated kid who at the same time feels she belongs and is an outsider. “Twelve” is a seven-page poem in the voice of a girl that age, who toward the end asks, “You know what it is,
don’t you, to be stuck inside
your life, though you don’t remember
How much more alienated can you get? Well, there’s the line in the poem, “In a Dry County”: “She is so young she thinks people only die in car accidents.”
It’s abundantly clear from all the foregoing that Adair-Hodges has a darkly comic wit tempered by a warm and comforting voice. The book’s title comes from the first line of just such a poem, “Everybody in the Car We Are Leaving without You”:
Let’s all die happy.
Let’s all take our lactose intolerance pills
& move to Milwaukee, home school our kids…
Let’s All Die Happy provides a roadmap through a life that never really had any rules to begin with. What are the goals? What is the destination? Let’s just try to get through it with our integrity intact. Let’s all just die happy.
CHARLES RAMMELKAMP is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives. His most recent book is American Zeitgeist (Apprentice House), which deals with the populist politician William Jennings Bryan. A chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Press, and another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press.