Review: Teratology, poems by Susannah Nevison
It’s tempting to say Teratology defies or rejects simplicity, but that itself would be too simplistic an assessment. It’s also tempting to merely list the collection’s many themes as if they were discrete components of a whole, but doing so would necessarily strip this astonishing book of its power, precision, and purpose. Susannah Nevison’s debut operates in a world where simplicity itself does not and cannot exist, which is to say, our world. It deserves—and demands—the full consideration and care of its readers, and offers in return the dense, challenging, and passionate complexity at its (and humanity’s) core.
In the opening poem, “My Father Dreams of Horses (I),” which acts as a thematic cipher of sorts, Nevison writes:
If your daughter is born
and her legs aren’t made
for standing——if her feet
are painted hooves, if her legs
…if you must make
her limbs——if you carry her
to the river but the river
is made of horses——…
if your daughter is made
like you, is built to burn——…
The absence of clear demarcations introduced here—between dream and reality, lore and history, monstrosity and humanity—underpins the entire collection. Take Nevison’s birth, an event she approaches from a variety of angles, circling back to it again and again and complicating our view each time. Often, the description of her birth is violent, an expulsion more than a creation, as in “Lore” where she wonders, “…isn’t this the way // I was born, the wide dark trembling, a swell / of blood pounding across distance, / forcing inlets between bone?” But there is tenderness, too. Her father is a constant in the tellings, “trembling” and “steadying his hands——the first star rising / where he cut the cord.” He’s a constant even when she isn’t born at all, as in “My Father Dreams of Horses (II)”: “In another life, you carried me / to the river; I was undone, a smear / of blood inking eddies in the water.”
Of course, there’s more to birth than that first emergence. “Maker, don’t / hesitate, just set that saw / to singing,” she says to the doctor who who will “cut / [her] legs free from the linden / block, and stain them, too.” She is made and remade and remade again. Her body is forever in flux, its state changed by myriad outside forces: from her father “who held her legs / tighter, to still the kick” to the anesthesia that “pumped you full of forgetting” to the “the surgeon / a godhead who culls / one weakness, yields another” to
…the fault line
in your blood before you, the infinite
wreck of bone, a tremor
of history coursing through
with a pounding like so many hooves.
Nevison’s greatest achievement, though, is the embrace and exploration of monstrosity. Disabled bodies have long been deemed monstrous in the Western world. Consider the traveling freak shows, popular during the 19th century, that employed and exploited disabled folks to shock and thrill audiences. These “deformed” bodies titillated precisely because they were viewed as not-quite-human. In Nevison’s hands, though, the monstrous and the animalistic humanize.
In “Premortem,” “half-masked faces… / prepare to scrub the wild out” only to inadvertently do the opposite:
…they don’t know
they’ve roused the hounds in your blood,
set the hounds running to open your throat
with their sleek, muscled heads, to snap
at the air, sound their note in your voice…
The wild is not some stain that can or should be bleached from Nevison’s body; it, and all its attendant complexity, is an integral part of her whole. Sometimes, her animality is explicitly claimed (“by turns brute and bird”). Other times, it’s an association, a shared kinship, as with the stillborn foal that appears in several poems. Often, her animalistic traits were assigned to her by others—born “tied like a calf / legs knotted for stumble” and with “daughter fins, fish for a flower, cold reptilian / blue”—but she embraces them, even when it’s painful, maybe especially then. And while she never shies from the harsher realities of her body, she is just as forthright about the beauty and power she houses, too. In fact, both are often true at once (“…It’s possible to love / what lays me to waste”). That duality is particularly well-drawn in “Portrait as a Stand of Willows,” where she is:
…the daughter of one struck branch,
dumb beneath the earth, still trading
in my body for root and bloom.
I need to believe I’ve interred the lightning
in my chest, that I am split with burning,
that I am brave as a river trading in
what separates water from cutbank.
Nevison’s invocation of the monstrous doesn’t end with nature, though. She is also partly man-made, after all, as we’ve seen via her births at the hands of surgeons. After one such surgery involving a leg fixator, what she believes to be the result of the wild (“I’m afraid the birds will nest in me”) is revealed to be something else entirely:
…you weren’t filled with birds, but with machinery.
You were fascinated by your sudden complexity.
You were a radiant marionette.
In taking control of the assumptions placed upon her disabled body by defining them for herself, Nevison also takes control of her own narrative, which is particularly interesting when considering how often she chooses to write in second- or third-person. She is simultaneously subject and object, narrator and narrative, actor and acted-upon. Again: a lack of clear demarcations, not a blurring of them.
It would be impossible to convey in one review how masterfully intricate, nuanced, and resonant this collection is. Nevison’s verse is full of echoes and refrains and the subtle differences between them, and she writes with a vulnerability that doesn’t belie so much as enhance her authority. There are entire poems I haven’t quoted or discussed—“Marshland,” “What the Body Wants,” “Notes to the Body,” and more—because they each could support an entire essay of their own, and to apportion any less space to their analysis would feel like a betrayal—of them and, in a strange way, of myself.
So I’ll leave you with the final stanzas of Teratology’s final poem, “If You Come to the Sea and You Must Cross”:
with rotted wood, or limb,
or bone: you turn
into vessel, into hollow,
so that you might enter the sea
wanting, your cheek lined
with salt. Water opens its skin
to accept what you will give.
When the good work is done