Chorus: A Review of Rebecca Hazelton’s Vow (Cleveland State University Press, 2013) by Brandon Amico

The voices of Rebecca Hazelton’s Vow express desire so sharply that even when invoked in a conceptual or abstract way it feels like a physical, mutable thing, as in “Book of Denial”:

seeing a lover naked the first time
                                        erases the prior
                                        lover’s body of any certainty
                                        in your mind—

Vow’s speakers place their fears and desires in clear view. They want to be understood, but also to be unique and mysterious. They want to feel secure and know love; to be thrilled by danger and be able to betray; and to make promises, mean them and still break them. These conflicting desires play out in “Love Poem for What Is”—

When you reach out your hand and try to wheedle
someone else’s to hold it, that’s love
dominating you. There’s no word for loving more
than you should, just the feeling of excess

—and “Love Poem for What Wasn’t”:

               if I couldn’t be loved
                                        I couldn’t haunt you like a house left open,
                                                       the beds unmade,
blur my edges until my face
          grows obscure but my perfume remains

In the first passage, the speaker views love as something external, a force that shapes decisions and outcomes—something that requires the individual. In the second, love is depicted as an internal force, something whose presence or absence forms a part of one’s identity (indeed, the face blurs away without its influence)—something needed by the individual.

Three sequences make up half of the collection and provide us insight into three of Hazelton’s writing modes: the “Book of” poems, a series of lyrical meditations often on abstract concepts; the fabular Fox and Rabbit poems about a anthropomorphic relationship between the two creatures; and the “Elise” poems in which the character appears as Marie Antoinette, an android at a Japanese tech festival, or simply as herself. Although sequences can come off as forced, gimmicky, or as filler, these cycles pull the reader in with their unexpected subject matter and hook-like syntactical rhythms. Additionally, they provide universally significant reckonings with identity, violence, desire, and memory, which run just below the surface of the collection.

Vow’s Fox and Rabbit poems derive much of their strength from the complications of its characters’ relationship, which are embodied in these two animal lovers whom Hazelton has drawn in a fashion that exaggerates the “animal” aspect while still making them remarkably human-like. Fox and Rabbit watch movies and squabble about small things; they are passive aggressive: “This is nice, isn’t it? I like these seats. / How far back we sit.” But, true to their animal instincts, they hunt and kill one another. Elsewhere, their behavior becomes difficult to define as distinctly animal or human:

           . . . it’s your vulgar
                                        I like best

the way you show your nape
          the way your ankle
                                        has no shame
          and you bare your legs
you bare your teeth
                              in a smile that seems

The bared parts say animal, but the bodies require clothes to be decent. The post-Edenic shame of nakedness insists a human point of view. The intersection of these two worlds presents itself most clearly with Fox and Rabbit, but the theme echoes throughout the book. For example, in “Book of Mercy,” the goddess Artemis transforms the hunter Actaeon into a stag. His dogs turn on him, unaware the beast is their master. Even the original mistake that led him to her blurs the human with the animal: “tracking what he thought / was a hare, and found a woman instead.”

Here, Hazelton reveals love as comprised of aggression, jealousy, vulnerability, self-protection, and both lies and truths. Threats cloak themselves in jokes: “Later we’ll play the game / where I hunt you down and kill you. I’m kidding,” immediately followed by “When you talk over the dialogue I can pretend / you’re the lead.” The lovers speak as if afraid of becoming bored. Excitement, even love, manifests as danger. In “Fox Undresses Rabbit” the act of betrayal functions as a sexual catalyst:

          your mouth,
                              which I’d like to slip
                                                       a finger in,
                                                       which I’d like to see
          the words you promised
                              or at least your collarbones
said such things to me,
                              led me further afield than I have ever been,
                                                       far beyond the safe confines
                                                       of the measured
                                                       and mapped backyard

Like the Fox and Rabbit sequence, the Elise poems form a narrative, but this sequence in comparison seems incomplete even though the individual poems succeed on their own merit. Whereas the “Books” work as a library of lyrics with the occasional thematic or imagistic thread linking them and the Fox and Rabbit poems punctuate moments in that relationship’s narrative, Elise as a series lacks a clear construction that would serve to build something from the disparate parts. The titular character seems to be a fallen starlet whose presence as a ghost haunts the speaker, but the reasons why she appears to inhabit other figures or identities is unclear.

With some poems in this sequence, only the title directly identifies Elise—abstracted from their titles those poems would not lose any of their potency. “Elise as Android at the Japan! Culture + Hyperculture Festival” stands out among the sequence. In the poem, Vow’s focus on expectation, and the desire to have that expectation met, come into view. The poem takes the point of view of the ultra-realistic android on display at the festival. The audience asks the android questions to ascertain how humanlike it is, assuming the android will falter and fail this test. When the android surprises them (“I’m witty, I’m a lovely / hostess, I even tell a joke / about robots and chickens”), the expectations they hold are not aligned with what they perceive, and so they react aggressively. The audience’s questions rapidly change to achieve the desired outcome:

                                             Where do you see yourself in five years?
                                             Why does the mother spider eat her babies?
                                             What’s prettier—a girl with a fresh bruise
                                             or a bucket of water?

The android neither recognizes any of the violence suggested in the statement nor can it answer the questions, which allows the audience to relax, having balanced what they expect and what they observe. “They smile back, tight, satisfied,” having forced the speaker to conform to their expectations. This echoes the Fox and Rabbit poems: the display of violence as control (and understanding as a kind of control), although this poem also brings up an added layer of societal norms to consider, that of the in-group controlling the fate of those outside positions of power. Given the appearance of something that’s known to be untrue, or a ruse—in this case, the presentation of a robot as equivalent in some way to a human being—the audience deems it appropriate to forcefully excavate the object of suspicion in order to reveal what’s really inside.

A similar action appears in “Fox Dresses Rabbit”:

          when I cut off your head
                              I feel better,
when my hands are inside you
                              it’s warm,
what you hid from me

These recurring themes woven throughout Vow gently tug the reader back and forth between narratives; each subsequent poem returns to someplace new but familiar, which encourages reflection on past poems and investigation of the recurring motifs. Unfolding the poems to find them unique but interlocking can be a very satisfying process for a reader willing to spend time weighing the works.

Individual animals, more than Fox and Rabbit, are ingrained in the collection, sometimes existing for half of an image—the cats unseen but present as the speaker of “First Husband” takes “your clothes that smelled like her and stuffed them / in the litter box.”—or as the focus of a poem’s contemplation, as in “Not Here to Buy the Leopard”:

                              Another foolish purchase, as foolish
as the way I attempt to assign personhood to the stuffed
snow leopard in the fancy furniture store on my way home,
the store that believes in the beauty of tiny chandeliers
and taxidermy eyes in a shadowbox. The snow leopard
might not even be a snow leopard, its face stretched,
as if they had a leopard skin but only
a styrofoam puma core in stock.

Hazelton employs images both lush and stark, and her precise word choice makes moments appeal to multiple senses simultaneously:

into these dreams I have
                              where you are always disrobing,
you drop one kimono, another,
          and I never find the heavy breast
                                        my hand was meant to cup, just
                                                       more surface, more summer.

Hazelton has proven herself to be capable of much more than just a dazzling image—from a detail-oriented standpoint, her lines break with considerable poise and the poems sway with a rhythmic energy: “Here there is skin and the sleep / that fills it, hair and the hands that part it.” Every sentence in Vow seems important to the whole. Few words go to waste. The recurring threads throughout the book are cohesive and connected. The careful attention given by the poet to the language and themes is readily apparent; much exists below the surface of these poems, a direct result of that tending.

One means by which Hazelton shows off her craft and economy of language is in her use of puns and homonyms, which effectively pull double duty; they appear to be consciously planted by the poet to signal key words and moments important to the book as a whole, but they also serve as an effective pivot—from where the reader’s expectation sits initially to where the poet wants it to be, the movement of which is telling of the collection’s themes. What a reader might assume will follow in a poem titled “Fox Dresses Rabbit” after encountering “Fox Undresses Rabbit” isn’t exactly the case. Rather, the “dress” refers to field dressing as Fox disembowels Rabbit. When the homonyms “bare” and “bear” are placed so close together—

          bare your strap and bear
my weight,
          which is

—the themes of vulnerability and violence, desire, and the conflation of human and animal that run through the collection all converge, and thus the voices of previous poems echo. By the close of Vow there is a sense of chorus among the pieces of the collection, that the poems are all singing the same song but in their own distinct way, their various compositions, voices, and moments telling their own tale while also contributing to a story bigger than the sum of their verses.

—Brandon Amico

Brandon AmicoBrandon Amico is from New Hampshire. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Baltimore Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hunger Mountain, Phoebe, Tupelo Quarterly, and other journals. You can visit him at