by Lisa Fay Coutley
Black Lawrence Press, 2020
To be tethered to something can be a good thing, can feel safe and secure, can feel necessary. Right now, we are tethered to a situation, to our homes, to our work, to our families, to uncertainty. Even before this time of pandemic that we find ourselves in, we have each been tethered to something or someone, physically, emotionally, or metaphorically, at least once in life if not for an entire life. The first of life’s tethers is the one that connects us to a mother. It’s a strong one, perhaps the strongest, and it holds us safe or in danger, and there’s no escape from the pull, however taut, until something happens to sever the two held bodies so that they separate and know or remember only the metaphorical chain that links them forever. Lisa Fay Coutley’s collection tether (Black Lawrence Press, 2020) is an exploration of what it means to be tethered: physically, emotionally, metaphorically to human existence and to the interpretation of that existence. In this collection, Coutley wanders through time and even space to examine what it means for a woman to be tethered, to a child, to a husband, to the definition of woman in a world where definitions evolve quickly and attachments influence perspective as well as life choices.
In the 1986 introduction to Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Adrienne Rich wrote, “The living, politicized woman claims to be a person whether she is attached to a family or not, whether she is attached to a man or not, whether she is a mother or not.” This claim of personhood is interwoven throughout Coutley’s collection that opens with a poem about perspective and space, an apt introduction to the four sections of poems that follow. Set up as an erasure, the poem asks three questions, the first being only one word, “How,” which is also its title. All three questions in the poem set the thematic stage for what is to come, the discoveries disclosed about life on earth and what it means to be human, the experiments in human interaction that result in lyric poetry with narratives alternatively apparent or hidden but consistently asking “how far / must you back away / from yourself / to see/ yourself, . . . & how / far / is too far.”
Within the book’s pages are poems in the voice of a woman attempting to make sense of all that she is tethered to on earth: an abusive spouse, parents who have passed away, a troubled son, her guilt and her worry. In “Winter: Tinea” the speaker addresses a mother and acknowledges the memories that hold the most sway:
mother shaking your denim bell
in a kitchen always avocado
smoke whole notes our thrumming
home lined by lilacs green apples
The lyrical couplets of the poem reveal memories in flashes of light without a complete understanding—how humans remember trauma and joy—in lines much like these:
little I was dad that’s how little
eyes choked into
every exploding color
less welts growing darker
than dueling empty wells
The language of the poem shows how memory, like life, looks back around to repeat itself but in subtly different ways and in bits and pieces of images, at times not fully formed but reflecting human thought.
Coutley’s collection includes poems of loss and longing. In “Blue Sky Thinking,” the speaker says, “We reach / & reach & do nothing but burn.” A meditation on clouds becomes a return to a brutal reality where “Fog is only light // scattered, the way a silencer makes / room behind a bullet in a gun.” In the end the speaker envies the cloud and the tree, which feels like a heart is broken, and the damage is so deep that it cannot be ignored. In “The Wrong Wish,” the speaker tells us that “grief is winning.” The tercets are an elegy of a life of wishing for the wrong things and having truth win out. No matter what we wish for, what happens may prove different, and we are left wondering how wrong we were. Midway through the poem, the speaker reminds herself
even the raven got it wrong. For all
its prophecy, it couldn’t know how
dark the telling would go, that no
god would ever look at it the same.
Truth is the enemy of any heart
gripping the wrong wish.
Mothers sometimes have to let go of the wishes they harbor for their children. We are tethered to them, but they are not us and we are not them. What we see for them appears through a lens of everything we’ve learned up to the point when we don’t know enough to help them through whatever life is bound to throw at them. The speaker speaks to herself, admits, “If you don’t let him go // eventually he will see your love / is killing you both.” The poem contains images of crows, a wounded animal, and hungry stars. The sadness in breaking the tether held onto for so long is a shattering one.
The moon, the planets, and the stars all make numerous appearances in Coutley’s poems not only in the poems with astronauts as central characters but in others where it makes sense to make analogies that become extended metaphors that become poems not to forget. One such poem is “The Letter I Never Send.” The title itself is a lament so that the reader is prepared for grief. The poem begins by comparing Matt Damon’s character in The Martian to the “you” addressed in the poem. The connections are strong and make sense for a single mother who insists that “love is love is love is love,” and goes on to describe herself and explain that “she was tethered / to some small moon in her lap cut but not / cut from inside her. He was her gravity. / You are.” Reaching out to her son at the end of the poem, she says, “Look at my hand. Take the rope.”
Mothers often struggle with how they raise their human children in a world where restrictions to the definition of gender abound and are used against those who do not conform to them. The myriad myths that accompany motherhood further complicate the struggle. In Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck,” the speaker makes the thing she wants clear:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
This is what Lisa Fay Coutley’s poetry is also here for, the thing itself. In “Astronaut: On Forget,” near the end of the collection, Coutley’s speaker “can no longer think of just one / true chair, one pure bed.” Speaking in space, untethered to gravity, she is “no longer mass defined by attraction.” Things seem to become clearer “where bones still fall but all belong / to the sky.” As in most of the collection’s poems, there is a “you,” at the center who pulls the speaker to them connected by an indestructible tether. The speaker lets them know:
I’ve fastened your face to my wall
of maps, so when I wake
from a place where the stillness of trees
terrifies me most, I’ll remember home
also means to be ushered back.
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