a review of Jill Mceldowney’s Airs Above Ground
from Finishing LIne Press—$14.99
by: J. David
When you think Phil Levine, you think: narrative, working-class, and a deep sense of empathy. Yet, behind each of these three, on the flip-side of his calling cards, is the capability to world-build around violence. Focusing on the hardship experienced by blue-collar workers, Levine’s portraits of working class America, often centered in Detroit, navigate the traumas associated with poverty and struggle, finding ways to turn towards wonder, meaning, or even joy. In Airs Above Ground, Jill Mceldowney shares this skill of world-building around trauma, but instead finds a way to turn towards strength and agency. She employs the nomenclature of equestrianism and horse-themes in confronting violence and its experience by women (Found): “Woman. / I am better prepared for that surge of contact, / of hand to body. / What I mean is / I thought I knew the silence / that goes on / like a horse after the rider falls.”
For her uses, Mceldowney deconstructs the common Christian lexicon and repurposes it into the language of the violence: (Better Talk Now) “From the beginning. I tried to be nonviolent / but this year’s length is measured in trauma / the hound changed to wolf, to a scythe. / Speak / of the devil and he will shatter me at the good…” She takes the common narrative around “victim” and overturns it. Instead of steeping it in a necessity for protection and brokenness, Jill avoids the softness around healing and gives the speakers agency to take up space and reclaim the world on their own terms. She treats trauma not as a bull in a china-shop but rather the same riderless horse in the poem, with the freedom and space to do whatever is necessary. It raises the question: What could women make of violence if given the space and agency to deal with it as they see fit?
This is a book about space, what you become when having it taken “a wall of teeth,” “the dog you have chained,” “beaten water;” or when it is given “to calmly go wild, to live yellow eyed and perform.” This is a human book, one confronting the hardness of healing and the terrible instinct we possess inside (Better Talk Now): “There is still plenty of tonight, a part of me that deserves you / that wants to / hurt you like I want to—” With the lyrical deftness of Ruth Awad and the frenzy of a Berryman dream-song these poems uncover want and longing beside healing and fear, the most human of conglomerances, the most ferocious kind of belonging.