by Angela Voras-Hills
LSU Press, 2020
The collection opens with the particularly captivating poem, “Retrospective,” which immediately impressed upon me the need to sit back and “listen” to the work. The first two poems involve multiple images of ambulances or sirens, which set the sound for the collection early. This, strangely enough, made me think of large emergency vehicles (like ambulances or even helicopters) as the “louder birds” of the collection, set against a mostly rural and domestic backdrop.
This implies, too, the need for louder birds—or emergency assistance. In the opening poem, Voras-Hills also observes, “We’ve all been in the presence of something dark” (1). Not only is this statement foreboding, and creates a particularly physical presence for the louder birds, but it also promises to illuminate some of those darker moments we may experience across the collection. In all of this, Voras-Hills does not disappoint.
The collection proves to be overwhelming, though in the greatest sense. It leans toward the imaginative, the violent, and the finding of violence in unexpected places. These poems are dreamlike and surreal in their imagery and descriptions, and in those most haunting moments, with images that remain imprinted on our minds, Voras-Hills unleashes the most real and unyielding of truths about life, love, and safety.
For instance, in her poem “Reflex,” we see what is technically a beautiful phenomenon: a baby’s reflexive grasp of a finger that touches their palm. But at the same time, when Voras-Hills writes, “They each slip a finger into her palm, / and she struggles to let them go,” there’s also a feeling of desperation in the line, as well as the inevitability that something bad will eventually happen, that the baby is seeking instinctive protection from whatever that may be (30).
Louder Birds is also overburdened with blood: in obscure accidents; references to labor, miscarriage, and birth; and dreamlike memories of domestic and natural violence. This quite captivating emphasis on blood and suffering creates a blanket of inevitability in the collection. It impressed upon me not only the horrific promise that there’s no getting around loss… but that there’s also a certain necessity and richness in that inevitability.
Though danger, violence, and the dark moments of our lives are clearly at the forefront in this collection, Voras-Hills also seems to argue for what these moments can teach us about the beautiful. By recognizing loss, the strange, the weird, and the dangerous, we might find ourselves more capable of emphasizing the better moments and rendering ourselves grateful to them.
This is where Voras-Hills’ collection truly shines. Though the collection stares so unflinchingly into the mouth of precariousness, Voras-Hills at the same time challenges us with every poem to continue living, to not just survive, even amidst trying times and defeat.
I think where this collection particularly succeeds in driving this challenge home is in its use of lyric imagery and the rural setting. Voras-Hills uniquely commands language and image, taking me back to the lyrical poets I read early in my study of poetry: Louise Mathias, Ashley Capps, Chase Twichell, Lorine Niedecker… Her images are often disturbing but beautiful in their composition, her turn of phrase. Though each poem is strong on its own, accelerating the reader to the end of the line and the resolution of the poem, these poems when compiled all together create a slow burn that builds in finality and intensity by the final page.
This collection in many ways takes me back to the work of Shaindel Beers in her latest, Secure Your Own Mask (White Pine Press, 2018). In both selections, these powerful poets tackle the strange facets of the Midwest, various iterations of danger and the unexpected, and what it means to be female and a mother. What struck me so eloquently in these poems by Voras-Hills and Beers was not only the images of violence, but how presumably safe spaces came into question as places of potential violence, like the bedroom or a typically secluded walking path.
In the sense of the rural, Voras-Hills immerses us fully, without question, into the upper-Midwest where she grew up and now resides, Wisconsin. Much like the rest of the Midwest, there are wild and open spaces where we may find ourselves alone, isolated even, and more likely to witness the strange and unexplainable there than anywhere else. The poet seamlessly and unapologetically incorporates these isolated and strange moments into her work, the man who falls through the ice and disappears, the rabbit at the side of the road, left to gradually look like something else, the sounds that come out of the dark and continue to find us in our memories once we’ve crept into our beds. Voras-Hills’ work haunts us in the slow, seemingly simple creep of her work, and stations itself for a long stay.
In a work as complex and memorable as this one, I’m reminded of what a poet is capable of, in one poem, and in a significant collection of them. Her work reminds me of the importance of taking risks in our work and avoiding complacency at every turn, whether that is in how we wrestle with a subject or when we write our way through a new, startling image. I’m grateful for having read this collection and all it has to offer, from the dreadful to the beauty sometimes locked underneath. I highly recommend you take the time to read it, too.