The Hatchet and the Hammer, by Caitlin Scarano
Review by Risa Denenberg
I find myself wanted to respond to every line in Caitlin Scarano’s chapbook, The Hatchet and the Hammer (Ricochet Editions, 2020). When she says, on page 2, “you can make him well, / if you simply / find the right offering,” I want to admit: “that was so true, for so much of my life.” And when the very last stanza reads,
How beautiful it will be to wake up one morning and know
I am not in love with anyone but the open fields I’m crossing,
the alter I’ve made. How beautiful it will be
to bury this.
I think, “You will bury it as I have. When you grow old.” I think about the decades where all of my hurt stood between me and the ability to fully love or forgive myself or others. I think about how focused my attention was on sex as repair for hurt. As Scarano’s narrator puts it, “fucking is a form of healing.” My own persistent repetition of behaviors that caused harm to self and others are described perfectly in the book as “our hardwood floor kind of love.”
I don’t think this reaction is a unique affair between me and this book, or between me and the poet. I think instead that when words engage me to this deep level of exploration and memory, when the writing is clear and unencumbered with disguise, the words are true. No less true, whether or not they represent the poet’s own narrative.
Certainly, The Hatchet and the Hammer tells a woman’s story that is filled with danger, pain, and loss. One grandfather threatening a young black man with a shotgun and another hitting his wife with a hammer; an alcoholic father dying of liver failure; a partner with intrusive thoughts of violent acts.
Questioning becomes the modus operandi here for growth and healing. Movement occurs, however slowly and non-linearly, thorough questioning reality, typically with no easy answers. When on p. 14 the narrator asks, “how were we to know?” and on p. 17, “What did I really know?” the poignancy of how a child’s naivety disguises harm is striking. Scarano searches for a way out, asking on p.19, “How do I know when I have the truth about myself?” And her answer is hopeful,
I looked out over Lake Michigan
one morning and thought:
there must be someone
who all this won’t matter to,
someone who will forgive me.
I must believe
we are not the worst we’ve done.
An image of the narrator’s mother, searching “for the [lost] diamond in the garden for hours,” is analogous with the book’s excavation of a life spent digging for answers. Answers are not always forthcoming, but on p. 29, the narrator uncovers a way of acknowledging the depths and layers of her humanity, saying, “Nesting doll, remember / who found you.”
The place where healing can begin, lies with perspective: time and distance. On page 33, as if an aside, there is this parenthetical observation:
(This is to say: I see now, like how clear constellations appear when you finally move out of the city, the points where I was wrong. How they pulse with pain. Let them.)
The 34 pages of text in The Hatchet and the Hammer are organized in short stanzas, paragraphs, and information bits, separated by embellished dots that resemble colons. As if saying: this, and also this, and so forth. There are no titles, so instead, I’ve added page numbers so the reader can get a sense that there is an uneven sort of growth unfolding.
Incorporated material was referenced in an appendix of “works quoted,” from which Scarano borrowed words of Carl Phillips (In the end, courage has mattered so much less than / not spooking easily, which is all nerve is.), and Sharon Olds (“suddenly I understood his fondness for me was safe–nothing could touch it.”), alongside medical tidbits (OCD is a medical problem, / and not anyone’s fault.) Scarano also quotes from Elaine Scarry’s, The Body in Pain, a book I recall relying on to understand the meaning of illness in the nineties, during the AIDS epidemic.
There is also a line from June Jordan: Poetry means taking control of the language of your life. As The Hatchet and the Hammer suggests, writing may be an act of taking control, but it is not therapy. While I recognized myself in the narrator’s struggles, and take some solace in that act—by which I mean the act of being honest with myself about myself—I do not seek or find comfort in the battle. Healing is a goal for those who have experienced trauma, but it is not a given; at best it is a series of ever higher hills to climb, ever deeper excavations to dig. I am not one to give trigger warnings, I’d prefer to challenge others to read this book, to see what they find here, what they are willing to bear.
Caitlin Scarano is a writer based in Anacortes, Washington. She holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and an MA from Bowling Green State University. Her second full length collection of poems, The Necessity of Wildfire, was selected by Ada Limón as the winner of the Wren Poetry Prize and will be released in spring 2022 by Blair.
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and curator at The Poetry Café. She has published seven collections of poetry, most recently the full length collection, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition.