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Rm 220: The asking is never idle, A review of Carolyn Hembree’s Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague

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“Inside the iris of time, the iridescent dreaming kicks in. Turn off that stupid damn machine,” writes C.D. Wright in her 1999 collection Deepstep Come Shining. Carolyn Hembree’s latest collection, Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague, positions itself, to borrow Wright’s language, as both an iridescent dream and the noisy machine that threatens to disturb it. Seventeen years have passed since Wright hallucinatorily imagined, or re-imagined, the American South, but Hembree’s Chevy rattles through Southern space-time into clarities best framed as questions. “Why do we remember the past and not the future?” Hembree asks. Travelling inside the iris of time, outside of this plague, can the center, or even our seatbelts, hold?

Chevy is divided into five sections; the first, “Safety Restraints,” securely positions a reader into Hembree’s universe. Hembree’s first poem, “Kill the Harbinger,” ominously announces a series of arrivals: opossums to screen doors, forks to cast-iron skillets, infant girls to fathers, and readers to a world where we must “sort the cold from the feverish,” and “sooner or later we all got to molt.” “Kill the Harbinger” stages these introductions as simultaneous spaces and interstices in which the primary action of Chevy is necessarily hesitant–where readers and Hembree’s characters Eyecandy and V. Cleb alike “peek,” not gape, “into outer space.” “Rig your Chevy into a time machine:/ copper lips copperhead tattoo stag/ stiletto,” Hembree writes, with her imperatives to kill and rig belied by an associative, lyrical expansiveness disinterested in urgency.

Chevy nonetheless advances a narrative that is concerned chiefly with V. Cleb’s relationship to Eyecandy and his deceased daughter, Adeline. In the wake of her death, V. Cleb asks God: “My flesh/ and what else washed down/ with the shave water?” In Hembree’s world, and for her characters, the asking is never idle, but rather gives rise to a series of relations between variable terms. Where Joyce sought to express the general in the particular, Hembree’s poetry repositions her bodies and environments into questions whose answers are never quite solutions, but more like portals into which we have rigged ourselves, through which any distinctions between “the general” or “the particular” are revealed as what Mama Cleb’s radio preacher calls, “False idols, you hear?”

Where Hembree trades in religious languages and images, the faiths of her characters emerge from, and express themselves as, interrogations of names and the often-obfuscated relationship between language and authority. “Call them what you will,” Hembree writes in “Fable from His Forebears,” “you ought believe in birds.” This idea of “oughting” to believe in birds or anything else compels the reader to ask: when does belief, or non-belief, cross the line from brave into foolhardy? When doing what you ought to do, can you know when or how to stop?

In “Sears Catalog Girl Grants V. Cleb the Spiritual Gifts of Flight and X-ray Vision,” Hembree writes:

Ain’t we all hiding
ain’t we all
somebody’s plague
somebody’s else under
our fig leaf?

Whatever, or whenever, we ought to do or believe becomes a function of our position: where we lurk under the fig leaf, or how we have infiltrated another as a plague, is doubly configured in relationship to “somebody’s else.” The invocatory is mixed with the bodily, and framed, again, as a question. Hembree’s politics of interrogation, therefore, become occupied by under or within whom we’re hiding as much as which — supplicant or respondent — ought be considered by the reader as more authoritative.

Chevy and Hembree’s meditations on authority, language and voice reach their height in her final section, “Customer Assistance.” The section’s first poem, “Did the Universe Have a Beginning, and If So, What Happened Before Then?” traverses the realities and fantasies of the collection’s earlier work; Hembree writes, “An afterlife/ was the costume/ of a blue jay.” The poems of “Customer Assistance” distill and explode Hembree’s central concern for the possibility that non-human things might embody and build structures of feeling — and therefore destabilize what language we use to observe or describe them and ourselves. Returning to the poem “Why Do We Remember the Past and Not the Future?” the reader finds one answer to this question: because the past, like the self, is an obsession, one that never presents itself directly but instead appears as all the futures we could not, and cannot, withstand.

In the “blown-open open” of Hembree’s final poem “Why Does the Universe Go Through the Bother of Existing?” the universe, the general, arrives as the costume of a moment: V. Cleb imagining his daughter Adeline walking alongside him at a crosswalk in Bristol, Tennessee. “How does one put it?” Hembree writes. “In all fairness I should bear in mind never bear.” Hembree’s engagement with language and authority finds a home in this poem, insofar as utterances must always find an audience. Whereas confessions can sometimes become currency, or divulged secrets mistaken for intimacy, Hembree’s speakers work to listen to themselves as much as, and with difficulty, to others, avoiding the temptation to fashion an audience as a customer, or memory as mere assistance. This work: this is Hembree’s iris of time, the awful and stupid clarity from which memory will blur and blur and blur until we have the courage to go again through the bother of remembering, of rigging ourselves into a machine that cannot promise whether we will travel forward or backward or even to whom — just that we will be elsewhere.

Carolyn Hembree is an assistant professor of English at the University of New Orleans. Her first collection, Skinny, was published by Kore Press in 2012, and her chapbook Fever Dreams in Skulls without Tongues by Nous-zot Press in 2015. Her work has appeared in a variety of respected publications, includingDIAGRAMColorado Review, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, jubilat, and Poetry Daily.

Room 220 will host the New Orleans launch of Carolyn Hembree’s Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague, a collection of her poetry published by Trio House Press. The event will take place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 12, at 2231 St. Claude Ave.. Sara Slaughter will also read, and Maple Street Books will be on hand to sell copies of Hembree’s books.

This article was reposted from Press Street: Room 220, a NolaVie content partner. 

Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at [email protected].