There’s something pleasingly circular about reviewing Lauren Russell’s 74-page debut collection, What’s Hanging on the Hush (Ahsahta Press) for City Paper. In it, the poem, “Of Mice and Monsters” cribs a passage from the syndicated column, News of the Weird, about Swedish murderers marrying behind bars. The poem also manages to incorporate quotes from Lady Gaga’s guitarist, “Jesus Christ” and a story about lab mice taxidermized into “human-like pantomimes.” Thus, the stage is set for what follows: imaginative work crafted to be both impressionistic and exploratory.
Her book invokes academic-darlings Foucault and Derrida, so it’s unsurprising that Russell is assistant director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh. With a strong list of publication credits, as well as a recipient of Cave Canem and NEA fellowships, Russell seems intent on breaking away from straightforward narrative and into something headier than heartful.
The postmodern “Unit” uses psychiatry’s DSM-5 manual to craft medical language into prose-y lists, the alternating fragments attempting to mirror the troubling experience of being institutionalized. A whirlwind of voices here mimics poet Myung Mi Kim’s similarly experimental work. The poem ends with a stanza that reads, “Gulp of telltale trickle down. Harassed on ward. Dead on waiting room floor. In accordance with perceived value. Lightening is a door at the end of.” This open-ended conclusion after the text’s careening nature seems expected but unsatisfying.
While the prose-poem “Pittsburgh” might have some thinking of inclines or pierogis, the setting, the speaker’s two-room apartment, instead allows reflection on her OCD. On her speaker’s reclusiveness, Russell references the death of Emily Dickinson’s dog, Carlo, as a turning point for that poet’s plunge into solitude. Here, claustrophobia gets symbolized by the speaker’s cat, Neruda, “squeezing into the crawl space beyond the basement wall …” It’s also shown when Russell writes, “When I was fourteen, I couldn’t sleep. Every time I lay down, I had to get out of bed to recheck the locks.” Here, the speaker’s obsessiveness is illuminated in ways more personal than at other times in the book.
What’s Hanging… is ultimately playful when it adds musicality to what Russell might call the “laboratory of the page.” In an exemplar, “___ Than Cake,” she celebrates asexuality by sexualizing sweets, writing, “Gooey, fruity, and bourbon boozy / hot, sauced, and dressed up juicy.” It’s in moments like these where the collection’s language coalesces, taking on its best flavors.