In the Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison (Persea books 2020)
Reviewed by Joanna Currey
Once, in college, I had a long conversation in the middle of a sidewalk with a friend about whether stories could be considered the basic building blocks of human experience, like an abstract counterpart to molecules. Story is how people make sense of the past and dream about the future. It structures how we have conversations, how we understand relationships, how we share memories, and how we build identities. By organizing pieces of information into story, that information gains meaning, and the protagonists of those stories gain purpose and trajectory— things I and the people I know need to avoid living in a perpetual state of existential breakdown.
For the past four years, and more acutely in 2020, I have become increasingly aware of the urgent need to be curious about other people’s stories—which is to say, affirming the legitimacy of other people’s lives. By “being curious” I mean making room in our psyches for stories in which we do not recognize our own experiences and values. I mean moving toward those stories with a desire to learn rather than dismissing them with judgments and justifications. I mean accepting those stories on their own terms when they’re shared, and refusing to be turned off or threatened by difference.
This is exactly what In the Field Between Us asks of its readers. It is a collaborative, epistolary collection of poems between Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevision, two disabled poets who simultaneously create and explore the wild, paradoxical, ever-transmuting landscape of their shared experiences of disability and medical intervention.
Reading In the Field Between Us feels a bit like asking Nevison and Brown, “What’s it like?” and instead of yet another explanation, they respond with water and light. In their interview with The Rumpus, Nevison says, “We were tired of explanation or translation. This is a project about what happens when we don’t do any of that. And the ways that that, too, is accessible to people.” In an essay for The New York Times, Brown writes, “I don’t want to translate what’s going on inside me, even for my friends… All that explaining my body will do is widen the gulf between us.”[ii] Indeed, there is great intimacy and vulnerability in Nevison and Brown’s decision not to explain. This project feels like distillation rather than translation, like the spiritual rather than logistical truth of their experiences.
In the opening poem, S— writes,
In the dream
my legs break free of me
and I watch them float away.
The coffin in my chest
blows open in the wind,
and for once I think I know
what it’s like to be without
all our dead and heavy things.
This is what it’s like: mythical, surreal: dreams of a body transforming, or the environment, or both: dreams of a life where there is freedom, finally, from gravity. The world Nevison and Brown conjure includes very few proper nouns and allusions, and only the occasional mention of doctors and nurses or a sense of pinpoint-able place. Their world is full of rivers and trees and wild creatures, scars and mud and bones.
Intimacy and vulnerability are also baked into the form of this collection. Inherent to the epistolary exchange is an improvisational quality, a “Yes, and” mechanism that the poets do not try to mystify: S— writes, “The woods are rife with men / and saws and knives. / The trees, once, were alive.” and M— replies, “Today I started walking where the trees were alive, / still stitched to their leaves, still humming, still houses / for musky warm and wild things.”
Will we even recognize
the sounds we make, know
that their echoing means
grief or knife or sister,
want, arrival, or our names?
and S— replies,
For want of arrival, a clear
syllable that opens across
the room or the field
between us, give me
instead the earth and silt
our names become
While the book’s sections are organized chronologically backward (Aftermath, Recovery, Operating Room, Pre-Op Holding Room) the poems appear roughly in the order they were written, keeping intact a record of the poets’ synergy as it occurred. By showing their work, Nevison and Brown not only welcome readers into their world, but into their creative process and the parts of one another they’re able to access in their profound mutual trust and understanding. Perhaps the greatest intimacy of this book is getting to see a part some of Nevison and Brown’s friendship—one often conducted over long distances—playing out.
Nevison and Brown’s consideration of form extends to the physical artifact of the book, used simply yet crucially. S— speaks from the left page, M— from the right. These poems never exceed one page, so the speakers always remain in their respective sides of the spread. Their “Yes, and” moments reach for one another like hands across the physical expanse of white space. Yet the voices remain distinct, only joining or blurring in the “Dear Maker,” poems (and the final poem, “Dear—”) that appear as codas to the sections. Rather than being left-aligned, these poems have staggered or zippered lines, suggesting an intertwining, as if the reaching hands have found one another.
The codas offer a starkly different third dimension to the book: letters to someone who (or something that) doesn’t write back. According to Brown, “There’s room for a Maker figure who is divine, a kind of God-like figure. But the Maker is also a doctor, a surgeon, and the Maker is also an artist. There’s the presence of a lot of multiplicity and doubt and resistance.”[i] The elusiveness and mystery of the addressee elicits an altered, perhaps more self-conscious voice from the speakers. In the first of these codas, the speakers write,
Most stories lack magic: your lungs are too small,
so you can’t breathe, so you don’t breathe,
so you die. Or you almost die, and then
there’s just a life, full of a lot of things that
have no place in myth: scalpel and stitches
and too many dishes in the kitchen sink.
The problem is that not every story is a myth,
is a sky where the body goes to star and back
again, is the body burning and burning and
something else making it out.
This poem wrestles with the act of storytelling, and with the poems surrounding it that exist in an every-place, every-time, myth-like realm. It recognizes the fundamental need to understand the stories of one’s life, and also the need to not romanticize that life in the process. But story is a way of intentionally curating and organizing information to reflect truth, a truth. Inherent to curation is the fact that some things, often difficult or mundane things like scalpels and dishes, get left out.
So, how does one choose? Neither Nevison nor Brown are “the body burning and burning and / something else making it out.” In these poems, they are making out the bodies themselves. They are on the list of potential addressees of “Dear Maker,” as self-makers who, by shaping their stories, will shape their own realities.
For this collection, the answer lies again in friendship—and the trust, understanding, and shared language found therein. As Nevison says, “We are constantly giving permission to each other to feel that there’s room for all of it.”[i] This book can exist because it was written in the capacious context of emotional safety and privacy. It wasn’t written for the sake of readers, and consequently there’s room for true vulnerability and pain, and also secrets and joy and play.. Brown explains, “For a long time when we were writing these poems, we initially weren’t envisioning that they’d necessarily ever see the world… What would it mean to, instead… let the natural, intimate logic of our friendship and our lives be the guiding post.”[i]
That natural, intimate logic feels both coherent and cryptic, consistent yet confusing. As I read and re-read, the poems often required a lot of imaginative effort to connect the dots. I could not always follow their intricate, layered metaphors, and experienced relief when I came to something that felt tangible and anchored to me, like phone calls and seasons, photographs and the doctor’s office. To some extent, the poetic sensibility of In the Field Between Us is simply one less familiar to me. But I also witnessed this collection doing exactly what Nevison and Brown said it would do: speaking on its own terms, and allowing me, a non-disabled person, to be privy to a conversation that wasn’t written for me. In Brown’s words, “it was a way of being like: Fuck it, this time the center’s over here.”
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