Elizabeth Cantwell’s full length poetry debut Nights I Let the Tiger Get You is a well-crafted exploration of the collective unconscious. With poems that drift in and out the dream world, Cantwell’s own subconscious speaker attempts to organize personal experience against a myriad of realities. The book is organized into five narrative lyric sections, with each section headed by a different version of the title poem, and the poems are mostly prose or informal with a few exceptions.
“A Hot, Close Sun Turning Your Temples into Ash” is the opening poem and while it is conversational in tone, the grammatical syntax creates an undercurrent of tension:
The confusion of “to save you end up trying/to pry/out” is uncomfortable, but that seems to be the point. Even the capitalized “T” in “the” creates a sort of tension in the reading, since the same grammatical rule isn’t static in other poems. These poems move in and out of reality and just when a reader begins to feel grounded, the scenery shifts. The read is a stumble between anxious dreams and waking dreams and reality, all separated by very thin veils.
The strongest poems in the book are the ones rooted in twilight sleep, where the speaker vacillates in her dreams between lucidity and reality. The first title poem jars the reader with its combination of concrete and sensory images:
The tabbed spacing for the italicized voice is well done, and the uncomfortable breaks in grammar are fitting. The watery distance of wakefulness starts to feel like a dream within a dream, and this is the discomfiting nature of Cantwell’s poetry. Just as a reader begins to feel grounded, it dissolves into a seascape. It would be Jungian and apt to make mention of the repetitive symbolism in many of the poems, ranging from balloons to the ocean, babies to 80s bands (Crowded House and The Smiths), to picnics and bodies being dragged. Even guillotines make several appearances. One might even call these tropes “recurring”.
It’s important, too, to not overlook Cantwell’s tiger. Blake’s “tyger” (of which she leads with a quote in the foreword) is often read as an epistolary exploration of why bad things happen to good people. The terror and beauty of the world are overwhelming, and it’s no different in Cantwell’s poems. The horror in the poem “A Kingdom Ago, by the River” spares no one: “Eventually everything goes in circles:/the raft, the fat man’s/bowel movements, the hair of the dead”. Later the syntax changes midstream and the lines become much longer, as if mimicking the unreliability of the dream: “but no one has ever gazed into their necks at dinner parties/no one’s thrown raw meat at their ankles in the marketplace”. The anxiety of a gruesome death seems to cast its pall on all of the poems, even when the tone has humor and even when the poetry isn’t as interior.
Nights I Let the Tiger Get You is a strong debut. In the poem “Aphasia”, Cantwell writes: “I realize I am obsessed with making all of this mean something.” That seems to be the collective unconscious at work in this book. Jung would definitely tip his hat.
Nights I Let the Tiger Get You is available from Black Lawrence Press
Lauren Gordon is the Pushcart nominated author of “Meaningful Fingers” (Finishing Line Press), “Keen” (Horse Less Press), and “Generalizations about Spines” (Yellow Flag Press). Her reviews have appeared or will appear with [PANK], Rain Taxi, The Collagist, and Coldfront Magazine. She is also a Contributing Editor to Radius Lit.