Rise and Float (Brian Tierney)

Reviewed by Fairuza Hanun

Content warning: Mentions of self-harm, suicide

A recurring word in Rise and Float which stays in my mind is “holes.” They seem to inhabit the pages like pockets of the essence of “holes,” be it wormhole, blackhole, hunger hole, desire hole, a hole of absence in the fabric of one’s world, (w)hole selves — in the end they are holes that one only attempt to fill, in order to feel some semblance of control over one’s life. The poetry collection speaks and holds itself as a memoir in verse, with disparate memories and bodymind experiences glimpsed from each family member’s bodies, the speaker’s self dispersed in between as if a speck of dust happening to float by, to chance these intimate encounters and glances into the holes in their bodyminds. Despite the diverse, disparate experiences, Tierney stitches such vivid images which glide and accompany each other so comfortingly, a byproduct, I’m sure, of witnessing and shouldering a family’s hereditary ill traits.

My brother tells me: I keep having this nightmare, a migraine light
beating off a plate, you know — a bright wall of water, sometimes
crystalline, obscuring a cave.

Brian Tierney’s poems are a resounding image of domesticity, familial relations and interconnectivity, and temporality, that recounts an unreachable existence due to time and space. Furthermore, I am reminded of a certain installation in which domestic spaces were pervaded by intrusive dots, signifying a seemingly miniscule disturbance in daily able-bodied functions, a thing which plays between in/visibility depending on the day’s circumstances.

The poem “Wormhole,” which particularly impressed me upon first reading, felt like it set the tone and constructed the nuanced framework in which following poems occupy. Its domestic imagery, inhabited by a mother figure, is twisted, or rather soured, with the volatility and irrevocability of illness. It is something which is invasive, alien, to dominant conceptualizations of domesticity, which conjure a household of able-bodied mundanity, fixing food and coffee, navigating edges and rooms with a typically functioning bodymind. In this domestic world, one does not fathom the idea of letting a grater slip across the wrist, or testing a shiny knife blade against palm, or thinking which food one could stomach today, or having fingers freeze up or tremble while hanging up clothes to dry… Perhaps it is not that these domestic images have never been tainted by the presence of illness, but rather that they have never accounted for illness to exist within them. The possibility has always been scratched from the start, therefore care and support for ill people and their caretaking family are easily dismissed. We witness the speaker and their mother connect, relate, and fill in the spaces between their bodies, their identities and the occupations assigned by them.

and fled from source and definite position, and returned
to my mother in plaid widow slippers, the blue flaking hallway

The first line suggests the displacement of identity and role of the narrator as a child, as if in the routine of fitting into mum’s shoes before returning to their own body having experienced something (traumatic) beyond their physical selves, their corporeal boundaries.

in spite, when I was younger, not young, while she hung
our shirts above and around a busted upright to dry in the sun

The placement of “she hung” by itself with the enjambement cutting between the sentence could evoke in the subtext the action of suicide. When you read that your mind sort of correlates the two immediately, and there can be a sudden feeling of uneasiness, urgency. It reminds me of how living with a suicidal mother, the idea is always there, always roaming about. Perhaps that placement can be a subconscious idea from the speaker.

of a perfect angle, in which to watch was to surrender
metamorphic mystery, but, equally, fear. Having set aside

changes I could think of as tracks to be followed, future
possibilities, arguments of a speculative nature, the roads

These stanzas evoke the experience of anxiety. They follow the aforementioned line evoking a suicidal mother, which makes sense, because as a child you are only witness and “voodoo doll” to your mother’s pain. Sometimes one cannot help with what she experiences. There’s a sense of powerlessness. It is here where we sort of comprehend the power dynamics in the relationship of mother and child, as if reminding us that while the mother holds authority over the child, it is not the kind of absolute authority where her helplessness and loss engenders freedom and relief for the child. Here, when the mother is helpless, the child is rendered powerless. Rather than engender an immobilizing, oppressive effect, or even the opposite relief, the presence of illness can be conceived to be one of our mothers’ complex love languages. It is the intimacy one can only afford with the former; to be on a similar dimension which allows for a deeper understanding of each other. A mother is often a child’s source of power; they dictate the extent of a child’s growth, whether or not it is done consciously. As beings that have sustained each other through attachment in the womb and after, there is a probability that one’s emotions, thoughts and physical conditions influence the other’s.

In the line “in which to watch was to surrender / metamorphic mystery,” metamorphism refers to both geological terms for transformation in a rock due to heat, pressure, and other natural changes. But it also suggests a metamorphosis. It implies that a child is also subject to this “metamorphic mystery” due to heat, pressure and other “natural” changes of an unstable environment — how one action can trigger a chemical reaction and instigate a physical change. “[T]racks to be followed, future / possibilities, arguments of a speculative nature, the roads” could also imply alternative time strands, diverging historical and future timelines, thus perceptions of events and archive work are affected.

When she paused, I paused. When she looked down I looked
as well, down, into the garden, at the material consequence

of a metaphysical truth: memorial flowers we’d planted,
then left. These rooms’ll outlive you I had told her once

According to Merriam-Webster, metaphysical truth is “the truth of ultimate reality as partly or wholly transcendent of perceived actuality and experience.” Could it be that “material consequence” points to the body’s laid to waste in the exhaustive meaning- and truth-making of transcendent experiences? The lengths which disabled and neurodivergent people go through in order to manifest their truths, rather than the disbelieved tell, are painstaking processes. To be ill, ironically you need to prove yourself by going through multiple, exhaustive examinations and paperwork, because it eases the discontent able-bodied people have with pain. To be ill, you must endure these lengths even if it causes you more pain. Pain must be concretised into numbers, facts and diagrams on a sheet or screen. Otherwise, the medical world grapples with the reality of it all, and often even with proof, we are denied. In following these clinical procedures, the one thing we need when we are in pain is sacrificed: care.

The poem ends with:

the impatiens soured and gave a small yelp; some of them
had names I could not take with me. Night fell. The treasure

I thought at the outset was wholeness, was not wholeness.
A passing car went white as the head of a match, and was gone.

Impatiens are flowers which symbolize motherly love and in some cultures impatience, but it sounds similar to “inpatient” which implies extensive, long-term or chronic treatment. The line also contained “names I could not take with me” which reminds me of an article by Travis Chi Wing Lau about the power but also the “what then?” after, the lingering incompleteness and medical reductionism, of naming our illnesses.

Most of us who have had our experiences invalidated our whole lives, our bodyminds going through mutations and morphing, often seek diagnosis, the naming which comes with it, to feel out the truth of our condition and experience wholeness through naming. But in doing so, more often than not our narratives and metaphysical truths are sifted through by medical practitioners in order to identify empirical truths of a known or recorded illness. On medication transcripts, our names are erased from the name of our illness, thus we face such disempowerment. The satisfaction in knowing our illness’s name is as brief as how long a match could burn — “white as the head of a match, and … gone.”

Through this push and pull of familial relations, the complexity of illness, and scattered memorabilia, I have come to realize that in this world, normalcy is a myth. Normalcy is born out of rhetorics of control, which are created to support and legitimize the policing of ill identities, restricting how and how much social and public discourses disseminate and conceal them. I cannot count how many therapists have told me, “This is normal, everyone goes through this, it’s a matter of how much you are willing to change in your life. You will get better if you have better control over your emotions and thoughts.” It is as if intrusive thoughts don’t pervade my common sense each time things “get better.” It is as if panic attacks don’t flare my insides and plague me with migraines.

By understanding normalcy, and by lieu, control, as a myth, it rewrites our understanding of taboos. After all, who would sit through hearing or telling others how one’s mother had died via suicide, or how one’s aunt got institutionalized and tortured, or how migraines pulse through you the relentless tides of life? Social relations surrounding illness have expressed constant discomfort, annoyance or pity towards whoever chooses to speak. However, Rise and Float reorients our perception of illness and the seemingly feasible dichotomy of “in our control” and “out of our control” in an attempt to assuage the anthropogenic impulse to dominate, to “understand” using the means of bias and violence. Instead of the dogged mantra to “get better,” to escape these painful waters, Rise and Float asks us to keep afloat. These poems compel you to shoulder every line as if it is a trembling confession, a relenting sigh exerted under the weight of exhaustion, a quiet display of trust, despite the discomfort it may bring, because that is the least we can do for each other.

Title: Rise and Float
Author: Brian Tierney
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Year: 2022

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About the Reviewer

Fairuza Hanun, also known as silkcuttofu, is a queer, neurodivergent-disabled, Indonesian Muslim on a mission to realise the queer-disabled ethics of care and ecology. They were a co-curator and -translator of one of Sigi, Kalimantan’s first children-written fiction anthologies: ‘The Fractured Rainbow Over Sigi’s Sky’ (2017), which recorded the children’s experiences of violence and climate change. Their work has also been published and forthcoming in multiple journals, including Asymptote Journal’s blog, GENCONTROLZ Magazine’s All That Jazz, PR&TA Journal, Perhappened Magazine, and more. Currently, they are organising and co-leading IWEC Indonesia, a literary arts education-focused organisation, as their chief operations officer, editor and creative writing advisor. When they have the energy, they also work on publicity projects for creative arts, volunteer as a newly-minted archivist at Project Multatuli, and co-edit at GENCONTROLZ Magazine with their friends.