REVIEW: Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine

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by Michael Wasson

A flock of birds
when touched I scatter.

Here we are. We seem to have reached the edge of disaster and feel, really, how still and gorgeous we are within our isolated, temporal bodies. We reach out and out until the world touches back with some sense of validation of our brief time here. On earth, we are faced with instructions for our everyday living. These clinical symptoms provide us the chance to maintain ourselves. And it is through this merciful, compassionate work that brings us nearer to each other.

In her first book, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, Camille Rankine intimately takes urgent contemporary conditions of our modern living through frames of still-lives, back into memory, under the shadow of failure, and even held down in the tender arms of loneliness. Her poems ask us to stay affectionate while zooming in close to a tension-wrought face-to-face with the mangled cages of our existence:

Dear prisoner

Dear, dear wounded

You have earned our respect

Dear bad animal

Dear caged thing

There was something about you

What Rankine does with this opening poem, “Tender,” is write small rhythmic salutations to so many lives. To us. We are the poem’s addressees. We the people. We are the ones valued, and what better way to be tender than calling out with such generous grace and necessary passion. A dearness imbedded into each of us. Our bone fragments. Our daily catastrophes. Our patriot and citizenships. Our displacements and glad hands. Our perfections made bad, and likewise, our imperfections made beautiful. This is how we are made to stay in Rankine’s poetry.

Her poems do so as well by holding to what I’d call an unconditional affection for our pains and triumphs—like close-eyed devotion to the flights and failures of human experience. Take for example, “Always Bring Flowers”:

Before we could beautify our death
it was a white noise in my head, underwater-

red. The bullet holes in the walls
were stars and stars.

These moments happen throughout the collection, moments in which we are straddled between the fathoms of physical self-consciousness and visceral abstraction. Rankine has us look inward where we hear and experience, touch and see, all funneling to the point of one’s bodied experience of drowning. But also, almost effortlessly, we are turned to the outside reality—the bullet holes in the walls. Rankine has folded us over and over, and then quilts the ending couplet with scattered points of light—because those perforations riddling the wall are stars. They hammer awe into us with the softest blow.

Reading Rankine’s short, terse, and honest lines, I can’t help but end up feeling so grateful. For the gentle, expertly seamed wounds are aligned against the most untouched surfaces of our human experience. Her brilliant observation dissolves the line between language and experience.

In every dream I dream
I am asleep (“Letter to the Winding-Sheet”)

If I could
be the shape of your breath in the cold. (“Contact”)

in breath, an indecent thing, these wars
blessed to our bodies. (“Symptoms of Doctrine”)

where there is a city
or say       there is no city (“Lament for the Living”)

You know how the body is
a fragile thing. (“Little Children, My Apologies”)

And at last, her ending piece weaves every you addressee into a we, merging the you and I together into a distinct call across modernity, declaring how we exist even at the edge of disaster. Here we are the lit homes, the bones and blood, the knife and lost language, the smashed and rebuilt. We are a collective curiosity and always—yes, always—an impulsive discovery.

What a bright entrance into American poetry Rankine’s Incorrect Merciful Impulses has uncovered.

Buy it from Copper Canyon Press: $16.00

Michael Wasson earned his MFA from Oregon State University. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho and lives abroad.

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