I love playing tough, but I also feel like a child doing it. I’ve never completely succeeded in convincing someone I’m going to hit them, and every single time I’ve had to manage a classroom I teeter on the edge of panic, on the edge of offering over the grown-up-in-charge position to someone else.
And so I love watching performances of toughness succeed. As a petite woman who often has to rev myself up to be in charge, I especially love when toughness is successfully performed by a subject inhabiting a body or a voice that is typically not considered tough. I love watching tough worn on small or shy bodies, love watching machismo on bodies that have been taught to believe they aren’t physically up to the fight.
Anne Cecelia Holmes’s debut collection hosts a voice full of successful, shy machismo, and I love hearing it. The speaker throughout her poems is both vulnerable and in charge, both dominant and submissive in a way that challenges these categories as dichotomies. The poems speak from the position of a quiet person who is not lacking in feeling but must control it, as in:
This year I resolve to squash my heart
entirely and shut up about it.
I could be someone’s bridge.
I could get married on a cruise ship.
I could have hit the girl in junior high
who said I was too quiet.
This is how Holmes’s poems move: attempting to squash themselves or make themselves small, but doing this as a public, spoken act – and so, ultimately, not succeeding in squashing anything. Instead, they play at the squashing in an incredibly endearing performance of both shyness and bravado. It’s endearing, perhaps, because the speaker is so self aware.
When faced with an ultimatum
I choose the most destructive force,
haul everyone onto the lawn just
to get tough
And so Holmes hauls us out onto the lawn. This is what the book feels like: drawing us all out for a well-organized face-off. Holmes forces us to ask how — and why — does the shy voice speak? How and why does the shy voice order someone around? And can this ordering around itself come from a vulnerable or submissive position?
Holmes’s poems convince me that it can, as their very power originates in the vulnerability expressed, the role as “someone’s bridge.” They are connectors, as their lines move associatively from the mundane to the surreal to the personal and back. A confessional-seeming moment can quickly swerve:
When you drag out the snow plow
there’s a glint all around like maybe
you’ve stopped moving, maybe it’s hard
to admit you were born in a thicket
Over and over, the creature-ly surreal is the crucial point of access for strikingly honest moments. The same poem continues:
How about I tell you all the days
I wear my true head and you get hurt
this time for real. You should have been
the one to sleepwalk at summer camp
to cry through the woods with someone
else’s sweatpants on.
Suddenly we find ourselves in a moment that feels almost mundane, and almost entirely specific to an individual memory, a personal moment. It is precisely the strangeness and creature-ness of the “thicket” and the “true head” that allows us – and perhaps the speaker – to arrive there. In Holmes’s poems, we almost always arrive at these moments in ways that feel like a mistake, like we have slipped sideways into a memory, conclusion, or opinion. Like that opinion was always there, but this voice has to imagine itself far enough into a position that will allow the opinion to emerge in public speech.
And Holmes’s speech does make conclusions, but they’re often fluid. She writes:
of the road is not a positive
place but it is a popular
She describes a world in which there is always a rush toward conclusions, toward wanting to understand. Perhaps that’s why these poems move so much from conclusive statement to conclusive statement, offering commandments and ordering us around: the voice is trying to answer our hunger for conclusion, to lead us to an end we can make sense of in some way. While the speaker often invokes loneliness and the struggle to connect with other beings, she still chooses to speak by way of connecting the dots between multiple and successive conclusions.
The poems in The Jitters give me faith in one’s capacity to construct one’s own identity – which is odd, in some ways, for a voice that identifies several times as “quiet” and often disassociates from its actions, as in, “These furious handsignals / They’re not even mine.”
Disconnected from the tools needed for clear communication—it’s a disconnection that evokes trauma or introversion or silencing (or all of these)—the speaker expresses how impossible it is to connect with others, but still manages relentless attempts that are beautifully portrayed in the turns of lines like “Trust me that behind this face / is a brightening no one can touch.” Perhaps no one can touch the face, but “trust” is still being request by a “me” subject position.
Holmes’s speaker expresses a sense of groundlessness about what makes up a person, as in “Is this you or a composite of you? / If this town moved overnight would you / get lost inside it?” It’s a groundlessness, though, that the speaker knows how to move in – nothing is certain about identity or personhood, but the speaker has figured out how to move in that context. Holmes writes, “At least I’ve found the store that sells / quality replicas, but today we wear our real heads.” This echoes back to the “real face” earlier in the book, and is a repeated theme – people in this book “wear” their identities, body parts, and roles. And the speaker sees this plainly, in lines including, “you come out wearing your pilot eyes,” and, “Bodies bodies bodies. This is how / the world looks.”
Though identified as “quiet” and often raging silently inside a body that doesn’t feel her own, the speaker is empowered by her knowledge of costume. She takes charge exactly through a knowledge of the costume nature of the bodies around her and of her own body: “My head a machine you can touch.” Heads are machines, humans are born in thickets, and this speaker has to heave sidelong into belief in her own toughness.
It’s a toughness, though, that is more about sticking things together and asking them to fight it out than it is about fighting itself. The Jitters concludes with a final wrapping ode, an ode listing memories (“Ode to the dress I slept in / and wore the next day”), decisions (“Ode to quitting my job / to stay excited”), and observations (“Ode to my jacket covered in yellow”) that are often unembellished and ordinary. They are pieces that make up a life in a manner that feels literal and personal. They are the pieces that make up the costume, temporary though they may be. Like Ted Berrigan (“The world’s furious song flows through my costume”), Holmes’s poems allow the shards of a life to flow through in an incredibly honest way that does not attempt to control them.
Holmes writes, “More and more there’s a chance / I’m not really made of anything,” and does not cling to that which is her own. She welcomes language, a language that in its very associations, commands, names, and precisions allows her voice to inhabit this un-made body, this un-made world.
Leora Fridman is the author of My Fault, forthcoming from Cleveland State University Press. She is also the author of the chapbooks “Precious Coast” (H_ngm_n Books),”Obvious Metals” (Projective Industries), “On the architecture” and “Essential Nature” (The New Megaphone), and ”Eduardo Milán: Poems” (Toad Press). With Kelin Loe, she edits Spoke Too Soon: A Journal of the Longer. With new media artist Liat Berdugo, energy specialist Joshua Finn, and scientist Shawn Manchester, she forms the collective The Bureau.