Reviewed by Brandi Estey-Burtt
Twoism. Goose Lane Editions, 2015.
Ali Blythe’s Twoism reverberates with numbers, multiples, mirrors, reflections, corridors, water, and starry skies. In the midst of constant flux, the broad range of bodies and relationships suggests that there can never be a single way to be or to desire. Instead, intimacy and exposure to one another’s fragility emerge as crucial sites of becoming. But Twoism is also steeped in a lot of sadness, particularly the sadness of trying to exist in a world hostile to expressions of vulnerability. As Blythe writes near the beginning of Twoism, “I am highly trained to see / sad faces everywhere” (8).
Twoism is about wearing masks, trying on (and feeling one’s way around) bodies, and making an effort to understand how other people live and think and touch. In an interview with Rob McLennan, Blythe asks, “would you rather theorize about Jacob and the angel or would [you] rather choose one of those bodies to jump into”? Blythe’s answer is “both, at once,” and Twoism represents his attempt to do that: bodies abound, and the “I” and the “you” move in and out of each other’s skins and mingle and twine “making me a mirror for you to want / to breathe on” (50). The relationships in and among the poems are charged with intimacy and eroticism, but so too is the collection’s relationship with the reader. Blythe’s terse evocations of bodily desire make the reader feel the text through their own skin. His poetry is a potent form of touch, alternately inviting readers into the “I” and the “you” as they simultaneously try on all the bodies in the poems.
But there is also a fragility in the collection, in each body and poem, that threatens to splinter and break at any moment: “I dreamed / you were a small dress of infinitely breakable sticks. / I am going to try you on now” (57). Vulnerability is highlighted by the recurring images of knives, medication, doctors, a sick blanket waiting to be removed, an “Acute Care Team” and a “Code Blue” (27). Pain emanates from a figure lying alone on a bed, but no “meds from a plastic / cup” (30) can cure these symptoms or numb the intensity of feeling. Sometimes this figure wears a lab coat, while other times the figure plays dead in order to be resuscitated, “to trick you into / going about the motion of being / deeply at work on my chest” (13). Sadness and urgency overlay each other, and “I am perpetually woozy.” Simple tasks become difficult, even overwhelming, as Blythe notes with a wry humour, “I can’t / contemplate my shirt buttons. / Assemble, creatures” (28). The cause of this pain remains muted, although Blythe’s own body seems to be involved: “my body, being the worst / kind of elusive structure, still / tries to go after what’s already / lost to me” (60).
Twoism is also awash with water, but it is not baptismal or salvific — just “the taut scent / of sex and chlorine” (56) combined with the perpetual lingering suspicion of drowning or being drowned. The collection ends with an image from a movie: two friends diving, where “One friend / returns to the surface to die. / The other never resurfaces. / The audience is left to wonder” (65). The outcome – the diagnosis – doesn’t seem positive, but the ambiguity of the scene undermines any notion of “two” as an either/or scenario. Uncertainty unfolds and laps over the audience, rather than drowning them with closure. This last poem – “Mise-en-Scène” (65) – particularly highlights Blythe’s ongoing struggles for survival but also shows Blythe’s fears of being “unable to be washed away” (60). Similarly, each poem is made up of slim lines of text struggling in a sea of obliteration. Blythe indeed sees poetry as trying on other bodies, but also as a necessary lifeline for thinking. It’s a means of crystallizing “thoughts into infinitely / re-orderable code-bits” (21) that can then be communicated to the audience watching Blythe’s own film.
An intense debut for Ali Blythe, Twoism stands out as a poignantly sad, but beautiful exploration of intimacy, relationships, and eroticism. It expresses a paradox in wanting to try on masks and disguises and bodies while simultaneously hoping for the moment when “I am . . . to be pulled open / by your thumbnail” (51). Resurfacing at the end of the collection – stepping out of this body of text – we are left with searing experiences of desire and longing, and the intense fragility of our bodies and identities.
Brandi Estey-Burtt is a PhD candidate at Dalhousie University’s Department of English, where she is both a SSHRC and Killam scholar. She focuses on issues of religion and postsecularism in contemporary literature in addition to maintaining an interest in critical animal studies.
Click here to return to the current issue