Attempting Scientific Inquiry into Elizabeth Bradfield’s Once Removed
by Laura Maher, with illustrations by Julia Koets
The animals know: something is beginning, or something is ending. Something has changed. Call it climate change, call it human interaction, call it nature. The animals are looking for what has drawn them.
The humans look on, observe. The humans aim to know these animal desires: to learn them, to learn from them, to understand why the animals behave in the prescribed way that scientists know, or why they do not. Call it exploration, call it research, call it nature. The humans are looking for what has drawn them.
The poems in Elizabeth Bradfield’s Once Removed are possessed of both animal instinct and human reflection. These are poems I am familiar with, but have never read before. These are poems that delight in the world and its questions; these are poems that direct us to hypotheses, not conclusions. In the process of reading the book, I found myself scribbling questions into the margins, like:
Where does language fit into this world?
Hard to care about the split
infinitive when ice storms,
when past dues, when shore erosion.
How do we name the bodies of others?
Maman. Breasted & nippled
& warm, warm, warm.
—“We All Want To See a Mammal"
How do we name what we cannot see?
My heart, my heart—I am so often lost.
How do we map our time apart?
—“Travel of the Light”
What are we to do with the wreckage created by living?
I’ll reckon you. I’ll reckon
we’ve not wrecked it, not yet.
what greater hush is there than a boat aground
then lifted by tide?
What does the I know of the self?
is harder and harder to leave the stiff forest of I, I, I,
a life cultivates. The trunks of self
thicken, saplings rise, ready to replace
whatever falls. The wafted drift of meadow
in which I began has been supplanted.
—“Deliquesce: A Meditation in Seven Parts”
What can be learned from the wisdom of animals?
In laboratory dark, birds leap toward
their routes. Their inked feet
prove again and again that they know
which way (and when) to begin.
—“Travel of the Light”
So much of the book relies on the relationships of subjects—of animal to human, of land to sea, of the living to the dead, of the self to the world. By the end of the book, one has studied innumerable mammals, fish, habitats, human choices, work, and language.
Through repeated observations and the asking of questions, hypotheses tested, Bradfield builds poems that use scientific method as an ongoing process. Even when there is a conclusion to be drawn, we pause just long enough that it can then be refined.
That is was daylight, that we saw the coyote
low under roadside brush, that
it just kept walking and did not
I stared. Silence, a thick band, wove
from you to me to this coyote just beyond
barbed wire. We attended
—“It Was Daylight”
Bradfield’s poems, though they do much to navigate the complex environments of emotion, relationships, and knowledge, ultimately ask just one thing of us: how will we attend one another?
Laura Maher is the author of the chapbook, Sleep Water (dancing girl press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared in Crazyhorse, Moonsick Magazine, The Collagist, New Ohio Review, and Third Coast. Laura holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Arizona, a Master of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She lives, works, and writes in Tucson, Arizona.
Julia Koets’s poetry collection, Hold Like Owls, won the 2011 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize and was published by the University of South Carolina Press. Her poetry and nonfiction have been published in journals including Indiana Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Carolina Quarterly. She has an MFA in poetry from the University of South Carolina and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Cincinnati.