Just recently included as one of Independent Book Review’s “32 Impressive Indie Press Books“, Todd Dillard’s debut Ways We Vanish is a daring and moving poetry collection about mourning loss that will remain deeply engraved in my memory. What at first seems a poignant monologue about the deceased mother, with an all-encompassing feeling of heaviness and helplessness, becomes a powerful statement about accepting the reality of absence and finding a new meaning beyond sadness.
Comprised of over sixty free verse poems, the book sets its stage with a rhetorical question “What is grief?” Throughout the book, the author will slam against a wall of silence and emptiness over and over again, continually seeking new ways to make sense of death the way grown-ups explain it to children—contextualizing the role of loss by finding metaphors around him, besides communicating the conforming and empowering meaning of love, importance of family and friends, and presence.
In Ways We Vanish, the reader is from the get-go wholly taken up with both the here and now—where the poet repeatedly finds himself struggling to come to terms with loss, tortured by questions he cannot answer, such as “how does one recover from the dead when their needs continue to send us to our knees,” and haunted by the fear he is letting his loved ones down—as well as reminiscences of bygone times and challenges he and his family have faced. He recalls his school days, being a “fat 8-year-old boy / with sad boy breasts … adults / mistaking me for / a husky girl,” and a time of rapid physical development and deep emotional changes, full of confusion and expectations. We watch him play Cops and Robbers with his twin brother, the same brother “calling from a war that ended years ago,” their father in whom “we found air” and “mother…a country in which we wandered lost.” We see brothers becoming more independent and pushing back against authority (“mak(ing) our way past the No”), although the poet will many times recognize he has little experience to fall back on when things get hard. By juxtaposing the innocent, yet insecure, world of childhood and adolescence against a world of adulthood, filled with doubts and dilemmas of their own, these, often brutal, Songs of Innocence and of Experience become a testimony to how fragile human life is, continually undermined by change and death.
From the moment Todd Dillard notices dramatic changes in his body—ripping bodies out of magazines and fantasizing about them, “naked and shadow-blued”—the body becomes a recurring element in this stunning poetry collection. It is “a destination distanced by want,” “undiscovered territory” and “a treasure map,” full of “beauty buried underneath,” as the poet discovers desire and “the need / to be / touched,” while his burying the head of a rattlesnake below its body, “birds … flying into my body and dying” and “so sealed, the body remains” give some poems a more somber tone.
Whereas most poems in Ways We Vanish are narrative, the style being direct and language complex and painstakingly crafted, the author also offers his father, brother and mother a chance to share their own truths, which gives the reader a whole new perspective on their lives, and draws attention to the full understanding of hardships and struggles through symbolism or abstract concepts. Therefore, we have “color(s)” as another image that keeps reappearing, which adds to the poems’ visuals— “a wooden house the color of dead teeth, hair the color of the ocean horizon at night,” “the walls a clash of primary colors” “an Old Testament sky the color of a soon-to-be skinned catfish looming overhead.”
Furthermore, by employing an imagery of the door, symbolizing the transition from one place to another, from one world to another, Todd tells us of his state of mind, which depends on whether the door is open or closed, resulting in the marriage of heaven and hell. While more often than not the poet sees the door as “a wound prone to reopening,” like his mother, sometimes “the past would not let me back in,” however much he knocked. Other times, it opens up new possibilities, embodied in his life partner and home, where “every step had become a door, every breath a turning key.” However, despite perceiving his wife as a door, or a way out, he asks her to “learn forgiveness”—learn to forgive him for using her to escape. In turn, he has “left the front door open,” aware “there is a song inside me” for those who know how to listen. On the other hand, he has a daughter to listen to, the poet’s tone becoming much lighter when talking to or about a person who “drew me wings,” though he didn’t know he could fly in the first place.
Finally, “The summer Mom’s shadow refused to stay attached to her, and night my father prowled the house searching for it” undoubtedly reminds the reader of the shadow detached from Peter Pan, which, some suggest, might indicate he already passed away. Or maybe he and his boys will never achieve adult understanding of death because they know growing up is the beginning of the end. Be that as it may, although the poet is occasionally this lost boy, suspended in a perpetual Neverland of the mind, wishing he could be “Anywhere But Here,” “tired of telling yourself not to write about your dead mother,” while at the same time finding comfort in the fact that Jehovah’s witnesses gave her “what we couldn’t give her unconditionally,” Todd Dillard knows grieving takes time and should be given all the time it needs.
Maybe we never heal because “You don’t end where your absence begins!” Maybe we “need help finding the pieces, putting myself back together” way too often. “Maybe we’ll never be ready for the change,” but what we can say with certainty is it feels damn good not being “The Mars Rover (that) sings, celebrating itself alone.” Why? Because no man is an island entire of itself, because we are all a part of each other and because without each other’s love, we would definitely vanish.
Bojana Stojcic’s work has appeared in many literary venues, including Rust + Moth, Anti-Heroin Chic, Barren Magazine, Ink Sweat & Tears, Okay Donkey and Spelk. Until she finds a nice and cozy home for her debut story collection, she’ll keep vanishing into books. @BoyaETC