Review of francine j. harris’s play dead (Alice James, 2016)

play dead: Elliptical Cento + Review by Rochelle Hurt
      modeled after Mary Szybist and using lines from francine j. harris

The form of this cento is borrowed from Mary Szybist’s poem "How (Not) to Speak of God" (originally "All Times and All Tenses Alive in this Moment"), which uses a circular shape to suggest both the inaccessible mystery and the omnipresence of the divine. Because the Szybist poem has no clear starting or ending points, it may first seem impossible to enter. Upon more careful consideration, however, one can see that it is precisely this lack of a linear structure that allows a reader multiple entry points; each line becomes a door. The empty space at the center of the poem serves as a conspicuous reminder of the simultaneous presence and absence of the divine—and its untraceable origins. Is a sense of divinity created through the negative space constructed by the pattern of lines, or are the lines in fact arranged around this present but invisible source? God is a kind of ellipsis here, impossible to discuss directly, yet impossible to ignore.

I used an elliptical variation on this form to build a cento from the poems in francine j. harris’s play dead because ellipsis is such an important aspect of this book, which invites, like Szybist’s poem, elliptical reading. It is in some ways a difficult book to enter—but only for a reader who is unwilling to find her way in through trap doors, syntactical cracks, and “hiding holes.” Although it first seems defensively closed off with clipped sentences and narrative ellipsis, the book ultimately reveals itself as a text that is radically open, full of wounds. Playing dead is a game of opening and closing as a means of survival, of strategic vulnerability and defensiveness in response to threats of violence. The central question of this game is introduced in “please don’t trance your rabbit”: “shiver or move.”

Through glimpses of vulnerable bodies and hints at sexual trauma, harris reveals the disturbing intimacies of girlhood, and in the process she reenacts the violence of sexual predation, mental illness, and victim silencing. Words are held back, words are trapped, words are bound, words play the roles of other words in order to protect themselves. Consider, for example, “in case”:

          I carried a clit, in case.
                                                  in case it wasn’t rape.
          in case the kiss was your lovely. in case, you suck a sore
          bruise, too. in case you were steady, your hand was steady.
          in case you could talk. I carried a clit, and a wrist in case—

The slippage between the noun “case”—yet another hiding place with a little door—and the phrase “in case” is teased out in the service of rhetorical interrogation. When we do something “just in case,” what must we stow away? For women and girls—some more than others—it’s often a kind of openness to happenstance (as we heed warnings like don’t walk alone at night or take offers from strangers) and to sexual pleasure. How do we reconcile pleasure and fear—life and constant threat of death? Where do we reconcile it in our bodies, and how do we find our way into and out of that space?

In other poems, harris’s syntax is reliant on what’s missing, using implied anaphora in parallel sentence structures that leave off the first clause:

          suicide note #18: sometimes I hanged

          lovers because they reeked of rain

                      children because they tripped when running

                                  mothers because          horizon,           for heaven’s.


          friends because


"the book ultimately reveals itself as a text that is radically open, full of wounds"

This is a list, but it reads as if it’s trying not to be a list—incorporating attempts at grammatical regularity that ultimately fail and, in their failure, express more than simple denotation. In other poems, what’s left out is an entire scene—the scene of trauma, its shadow cast by the poem's title. In “afterwards the boys stand in the kitchen,” we get a rundown of everything the boys do—except the actions preceding the “afterwards.” Those are unmentioned, unmentionable, erased—but as in the missing center of the Szybist poem, those unmentioned acts form the core of the poem from which all other acts, lines, language, and understanding radiate: “they all stink salt. emit wet foot. they all/adjust themselves in constant fidget./after they all adjust burners on the stove, they all/amble relieved.” harris draws a comparison between our linguistic ability—our need, even—to understand what isn’t said aloud by filling in empty spaces, and our tendency to push away, cover up, and silence what we understand but wish we didn’t.

In writing about violence and trauma, harris also uses a good deal of polysyndeton (notably, a word that comes from the Greek for “many bound together”) to create the frantic feeling of puzzling details into a comprehensible scene. In doing so, she puts weight on her ands until hierarchical sentence structures begin to break down:

          and cords twirled to choke
          and a sun pinpoints under magnifying glass, so
                      fire ants, who pick up the floor
          and take it with them, no flesh left, surgeons
          and bones, limbs pout from throat, butterfly
                      poison and tumbler bellies
          and bees of meat, and you chop and chop

The effect is visceral—a reader’s breathing speeds up, her diaphragm tightens, her body reacts to the page. So many shivering bits of language are tied together by the same elastic word, which eventually begins to sever syntactical relationships even as it leaves each line feeling bound to the previous and the next. This is how syntax works, after all: each new word or phrase changes the one it follows, sometimes violently—changes its nature, its future, its entry into and exit from the world. This is often easy to forget in the larger picture of linear meaning-making, but harris reminds us of this in poetry that is, in every sense of the word, stunning.

Rochelle Hurt is the author of In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016), which won the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City (White Pine, 2014), a novella in prose poems. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, Poetry International, Vermont Studio Center, Jentel, and Yaddo. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati.