Posthumously published at the opening of 2020, Teva Harrison’s collection Not One of These Poems Is About You documents her experience of her last years of life before she passed away from metastatic breast cancer. She opens the collection with “A Pocketful of Stones”: “I’d like to close the distance between us: where you end, where I begin, / but your skin stops me, I can’t find my way in.” Harrison keeps her reader in a space of closeness and intimacy through her loose rhymes and clear language.
Harrison does not shy away from difficult feelings of self-punishment, resentment, and alienation. She writes in “The Things I Do to Keep Cancer on the Down-Low”: “I’m biting my tongue because this is what I do when you tell me how / nobody would get that I’m dying. / As if the guessing is what matters, not the dying.” As she grimly relates attempts to minimize her illness, she toes the line between wanting her illness to be recognized, to be seen as “sick,” and wanting to feel “a stranger’s eyes linger as [she] walk[s] by.”
There is a crystallized focus on how the body meshes with the exterior world: her body is sick, her body is the ocean, her body is tired, her body is beautiful. Like the tides, the poems edge in and away from the shore of meaning, occupying a liminal space of loss and love. Questions of self-punishment, resentment, are bracketed with intense bursts of love, desire, and a need to experience beauty.
Small illustrations of stars, flowers, leaves, and wasps pepper the pages of the collection. Each image pieces together to form a constellation of simplicity and quietude amidst Harrison’s meditations on what her mortality means both to her and the ones she loves. The illustrations also remind the reader to look up, to notice the minute details of the outside world: the shape of the insect in flight, the flower bulb which has not yet opened.
The craving for intimacy recurs throughout the collection. Writing to her partner who she knows will survive her, she wonders “about where this leaves [him]. / No more big spoon. No more little spoon” (“When I Become You”). In “Intimacy,” she offers a list of things—pooping with the door open, using each other’s toothbrushes, admitting to shame—that express the boundlessness of their intimacy. Life, it seems, is not just about bombastic experience, but about quiet moments of letting your guard down with another person. Love is leaving the door open as long as you can.
Her sentences, while complete, straightforward and unclouded, belie an intense, emotional complexity: “the harder I focus on one aspect, / the less I see” (“Shifting Shadows”). Harrison’s poetry breathes, and with each inhale and exhale, her writing becomes more connected, more honest, and more ready. Not One of These Poems is About You is certainly about Harrison: who she was as an individual, as an artist, as a lover. However, one recurrence in the collection is the image of lovers entwined, trying to get under each other’s skin so they can love each other just a little bit harder. Perhaps these poems are not about a single you, but about an us.
Paisley Conrad is poet, reviewer and MA candidate in English literature at Concordia University. She writes about literature and the climate crisis at The New Twenties and enjoys the weather.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.