Harper Perennial. 2013. 128 pages.

Harper Perennial. 2013. 128 pages.

Sasha West has chosen an unlikely, yet intriguing, travel companion in her poetry collection, Failure and I Bury the Body from Harper Perennial. Selected by D. Nurske as a winner of the 2012 National Poetry Series, West’s collection details a speaker’s misadventures with Failure on a road trip. As passengers, we are hardly disappointed.

Each poem accumulates images rapidly and in doing so reflects the visual intake of a car ride. These poems are rich in precision, abundant in clarity that breathes, which offers us the luxury of fully absorbing each leg of the journey. A number of the poems nod to the pastoral tradition, as well as cast an industrial hue over the natural world. We see one such instance in the poem “As It Appears Underneath a Cloud, Failure & I Drive Towards the Underbelly of the Sun”:

Failure flickers through the car and mimics—hawk beside me,
angry swan, indigo bunting, swallow spitting mud against the roof
to make a nest;

Becomes: mineral crystals in the migrating head, pulled to magnetic fields.
Becomes: identical impulse in the prairie dog and guinea fowl to run.

Failure’s various bird imitations conflate failure and the natural world. Though certainly not all failures sound the same, each takes on its own distinct call. Form figures largely throughout this collection. In this particular poem, the long lines echo stretches of road and expand our field of vision; they offer enough space to hold machines and animals. Through her lyrical language, West elevates the chaotic nature of the many convergent entities within our expansive world.

The landscapes are terrifying, but they are our own. And they’re not so much ref lections as they are nightmarish projections, surreal lands that feel real enough to make us slightly uncomfortable with lived reality. The poem “Failure Burns the Taxidermy Museum” takes a visit that may already be considered eerie—to the taxidermy museum—and amplifies the terror by burning the preserved animals. The loosely narrative and largely associative poem catalogues the animals and their destruction by Failure, only to eventually arrive at a conclusion of dark repair:

Later, to console himself,            Failure remakes a creature, saws sews limbs
together and hooks            the beast to our car battery            to make it live.

The speaker and Failure may leave the taxidermy museum, but they leave toting evidence of their destruction. Yet they also carry the hope of reanimating the animal. The dark tone cast over the acts of re-creation is an echo heard often throughout Failure and I Bury the Body, as is resurrection. Through West’s personification of Failure and an ex-lover we know as the Corpse, she draws a mythology of letdown and loss. One such portrayal of the speaker and her Corpse appears in the poem “The Failure of Sequestration,” in which the speaker claims:

“I store the radioactivity of the Corpse in me, its half-life
decaying in transit across state lines. Watch
the critical pathway from air to pasture, from pasture

to cows to milk—I absorb the corpse in the organs or tissue.
A crumpled flower. A rain-drenched parade and sashes.”

On this journey, loss is prolonged. The Corpse takes time to decay, a half-life in fact, a radioactivity that permeates the speaker’s body and the environment. Both the speaker and the natural world are prone to the Corpse’s toxicity. Even at the conclusion of this particular poem, the speaker insists: “Small doses of radiation linger—here at the cherry’s core . . .” Despite the speaker’s best efforts, the Corpse’s effect is lasting and destructive to the world around it.

Quirky and otherworldly, these poems are smart and dark, at times humorous, but also consistently aware. It’s this awareness that heightens the reader’s attention and compels us to read, the knowledge that we are not immune to visits from those we have lost and journeys with our failures. Ambitious in its scope and imagination, Failure and I Bury the Body successfully catalogues moments on a strange and surreal journey that remind us that despite Failure’s imminence we have opportunities to persevere and press forward. As one speaker so eloquently suggests in the poem “Remade”: “We have made peace with it, with the world / Failure who at night is a corpse made of bees / We will look for new earth to plant.”

Gina Keicher