Portrait of the Future with Trapdoorby Elizabeth OnuskoRed Paint Hill, 2016Winner of the 2015 Bryant-Lisembee Book PrizeThe poetics of grief is woven deep into the history of American poetry. Whitman grieved outward, tying his sorrow to the nation, while Dickinson turned inward, focusing on the small, single objects of her vision. In her debut full-length collection of poems, Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor, Elizabeth Onusko blends these two traditions. Her poems draw on national and international tragedies – earthquakes, mass shootings, war – while harnessing the personal grief of childloss as a way to bind these different subjects together. Her lines are sharply drawn, her themes large enough to contain myth, and her images have scientific precision, resulting in a collection that is at once deeply personal and, at the same time, fundamentally global. The five sections of Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor, begin with an introductory poem, each called “Case Study.” These position the reader in the narrative moment of the speaker in each section. For example, the book begins with “Case Study (Symptom Repertoire).” Onusko begins the poem by writing, “Weeping. Weeping soundlessly, weeping/ blood. A heartbeat in deep cover.” The catalog of images, each with growing horror and visions of violence, continues for four stanzas. It concludes, “Fetishizing erasers. Believing you// are the designated survivor.” This leads the reader into a series of poems that catalog destruction and violence. In “Tracking, ” an image of a starving fox leads to an abducted girl, found “in a field but not her/ turquoise earrings.” In the title poem, the mass of grief and the speaker’s place within it takes over:
Your role is neither hero nor victim, but witness, the one who converts what is into what was and liveswith the memory of it. Mudslide, mass shooting, blood clot lodged – what do circumstances matter?
The speaker, throughout this poem – and this section – struggles to make sense of her place within the larger events while honoring her own pain. “Most of what you learn is that you haven’t learned,” Onusko writes at the end of “Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor.” “How long it takes. How without warning// the bottom falls out from beneath you.”As the collection progresses, the speaker moves through her grief, acknowledging her childloss in the second section and simultaneously raging and praising the human body in the third. By the fourth section, the poet moves toward acceptance but Onusko never wavers from the honest complexity of her speaker’s emotional progress. In “Category Three,” a hurricane leads to the revelation that “rain’s thousand hands pressed against// the window, showing us how beautiful it’d be/ to drown.” In “Aftermath,” she writes:
The bad news is we’ve lost but the good news is there’s bread, and breath comes more slowly and assuredly, ready to be taken for granted again.
Later, in “Outro,” she writes a letter to her body about a fallen down peach covered in ants. The rot and decay of the peach and the horror of the ants crawling on its flesh are mitigated by the precision and beauty of the “file of ants in perfect formation.” Onusko carefully weaves together her horrors – of the hurricane-world and of the self taking breath for granted – and rather than trying to explain this complex state, she allows that state to live as is within her lyric images. Elizabeth Onusko’s Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor is a remarkable collection of poems. Structurally inventive and lyrically beautiful, these poems are honest and unflinching in their catalogs of decay. But these poems also fill with beauty. Near the end, she describes a beetle-destroyed house and the future archeologists trying to decipher its ruins. “Under a tent of eaves fallen just so,/ they find a dollhouse demolished/ save for the nursery,/ inside of which a baby is swaddled.” This is the vision of Onusko’s book: the world perhaps is collapsing but there is beauty within the falling debris. Onusko’s brilliance, though, is her ability to make the debris itself beautiful.
Read more about this collection here.
Anthony Frame is an exterminator from Toledo, Ohio, where he lives with his wife. He is the author of A Generation of Insomniacs and of three chapbooks, most recently To Gain the Day. He is the editor/publisher of Glass Poetry Press and the managing editor for The Indianola Review. His poetry has appeared in Third Coast, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Boxcar Poetry Review, Muzzle Magazine and Verse Daily, among others. He has twice been awarded Individual Excellence Grants from the Ohio Arts Council.