REVIEW: play dead by francine j. harris

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by Ansley Clark

I’ve been feeling undone over the past couple of months, ever since I read and started carrying around francine j. harris’ play dead. These feelings are partly because harris’ book, at its simplest, is about brokenness. They are also because I first read this book just a week after the attack against Orlando’s queer community, during a summer filled with continued police brutality and systemic violence against people of color and other members of marginalized communities. In her poem “startle,” harris writes:

The minute you say want, the light which was red
is most certainly now, a womb—a thing no one wants to
stare into, most certainly a thistle, where nothing is safe.
any corner could be a cement truck. or a gun. (22)

While harris’ presents the image of a womb in this moment, she also addresses violence and vulnerability and hurt. She addresses the experiences of living in a world—in a country—where “nothing is safe,” especially for marginalized communities and individuals. She addresses what it means to live in a body that is not safe in either the public or the private sphere. Thus, the ache and throb of play dead are the ways in which it discusses violence, particularly sexual violence and the violence that occurs when one exists as a woman.

The book’s epigraph from Kazim Ali reads, “It’s always the broken that holds the universe in place.” And this brokenness continues throughout the book in a jerking kind of rhythm that both jars and soothes. In “in case,” harris writes:

                …our mouth
got us our bitter ass whipped, pick our own-
ers, our switches, our licks, our shut up. our shut up. our shut up. (16)

The poem ends with a strange and painful repetition, like a broken record or a broken doll, or like someone bashing their fists or their head against a wall, over and over. Under the weight of the images of physical violence, the speaker here seems to buckle slightly and repeat what she’s been told, that she needs to just “shut up.”

However, the book’s speaker(s) never once sinks under this weight. These are not quiet poems. While they are at times fragile and vulnerable, they also spit and scream directly back at their aggressors. This empowered voice refuses to allow the violence to crush it. This voice also speaks to the book’s epigraph by Kazim Ali as it explores how those who are broken possess perhaps the only kind of real strength and power.

Consequently, play dead involves a fierce and painful interplay between power and powerlessness and between violence and light. Reading this book is like watching light shift across shattered glass—I give this image not to be poetic, but to describe the book’s tight and chaotic ecology, as well as the poems’ forms and their physical presence on the page. harris’ lines and stanzas spread like cracks across the entire page, occasionally clumping in one corner. Additionally, harris’ punctuation feels entirely spontaneous and pure, like a continuation of her mental processes. In the book’s opening poem “in,” she writes:

We don’t always think in locks. or iron, we set up house to bring. dim it warm to want. (13)

While she uses periods, she occasionally begins a new sentence in lowercase, seemingly to indicate that these two thoughts are more closely connected than thoughts separated by both a period and capitalization.

At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I want to say that my favorite poem in play dead is “tatterdemalion.” At the poem’s end, harris writes:

What parts of me shake loose dirt. What parts wait until you are bare. My jejune bluegrass, why do I eat your light. There are grasses growing up the shabby fence. All of them fluid blade. We sway. creep easily. What parts of me are wild. What parts storing up for the choke. How do I tell the difference. (68)

There is so much importance in these final questions. The poem begins with descriptions of listening to a women’s moan through a wall, and then flairs out wildly in images of dirt, weeds, and other green and growing things. Consequently, “how do I tell the difference” becomes “how do I tell the difference between my wild self and the self that the world dictates to me.”

Since play dead is a book that takes emotional risks, I feel it’s appropriate to say that “tatterdemalion,” and many other poems here, evoke enormous grief and make me cry. Because harris understands the intense balance between vulnerability and power, because we are not safe here, play dead is a crucial book.

Alice James Books (2016): $15.95

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