Breaking by Brittney Corrigan
Review by Risa Denenberg
Brittney Corrigan is a woman trying to make sense of the world using every power that blending breaking news events with imagination and metaphor will afford. In Breaking (Word Tech Editions, 2021), Corrigan displays a sensitive balance of empathy and craft while superimposing global trauma with details from her own life. These twenty-one poems are paired responses to events that occurred during the years 2013-2019; yet they seem timeless.
When I first opened Breaking, perusing at random, I ignored the postscripts included with each of the twenty-one poems, indicating which global event the poem was written “after,” such as “After the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park at the hands of trophy hunter Walter Palmer on July 1, 2015.” None of these poems actually need these postscripts, they are strong stuff on their own.
When I picked up Breaking again, with the goal of reviewing it, the dedication struck me:
For Angie Rinaldo Crowder,
my 8th grade social studies teacher,
who taught me the importance
of paying attention to the events of the world.
To be needlessly repetitive, this is a dedication to a social studies teacher, not a poetry mentor. This early lesson was not only internalized but considered, examined, and transformed by a poetic consciousness. And what better way to comprehend the bombings, mass murders, separation of children and families at the US-Mexican border, endangered animals, and catastrophic floods and fires? And, I should add, some wondrous events: “the female pilot who safely landed Southwest Airlines flight 1380;” the escape of “Ollie a female bobcat” from the Smithsonian National Park Zoo; or “the first all-female spacewalk.”
Floating above “After the suicide bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England that killed 22 people on May 20,1917,” is the poem “Put Your Hearts Up,” in which a “cousin’s 12-year old daughter / is dying.” This close-to-home tragedy is lined up with the mass murder. “This world in which freak accident / and planned evil turn out the same.” It goes on,
But patching up one hole leaves another gaping.
Hearts are fracturing all around us, all across
this organ of our earth. Our fear, our grief, is audible
and persists. And yet our bodies cleave us together,
quicken and pulse.
Other poems also carry the weight of tragedy mixed with credible hopefulness. “Unflap” is written in the voice of a person surviving a harrowing emergency plane landing who feels,
The gravity of our hearts plunging
for what we’ve lost. Gripping onto
each other, remembering what’s worth
saving as the mess of us lands.
In “Steller’s Jay the Week of the Boston Marathon Bombings,” Corrigan considers her own culpability when,
The young cat whose life I saved carries
a Steller’s jay in his mouth, the blue
form limp on either side of his jaws.
. . .
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Somewhere behind
him in the trees the little jays call from their nest:
their blue mouths open.
And then she juxtaposes her “responsibility for this rending” with that of the mother of a murderer,
She would still run to him now, still gather
him into her arms, rock him like a child—
no matter what is lashed to his chest.
Corrigan finds a special place in these poems for wildlife: the bobcat escaping from the zoo; Cecil the lion in Nairobi’s National Park; the mother orca, Tahlequah, “who carried her dead calf for more than two weeks” while “immigrant families were being separated at the United States border with Mexico.” Here she muses, “The orcas are better than we at buoying up our own.”
In “Truck Carrying Live Eels Overturns on Highway 101,” she pictures the eels ultimate fate “not to be shipped off to Korea,” but instead becoming roadkill—
xxxxxxxxxx[a] viscous mass of lives
across the pavement, racing the bulldozer,
the push of its knobby, rolling track
folding them on top of each other
as if they were no more than snow,
clearing a path through the wreckage
in which no one was injured.
The irony of that quiet last line is heartrending.
We each bear awful news in our own way, pay attention to the things we feel moved to respond to, try to protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed, suicidally depressed, or callously disconnected. I am particularly sensitive to images of trauma and for this reason, after the events of 9/11/01 in New York City, I gave away my television, and have not owned one since. In Breaking, Corrigan paints dreadful images with words and puts forth a response (something I’m not always able to do) while making a valiant effort to not overwhelm, depress, or paralyze her readers. There is a feminist consciousness here as well, sharing fears and yearnings for a young daughter in “On Telling My Nine-Year-Old Daughter that Hillary Won’t be President,” and in praise poems such as “Astrosisters,” where, “two women navigate the Space Station in weightless / calm.”
I suspect that this practice of responding swiftly to events by writing poems (three of these were published in Rattle: Poets Respond) is a source of emotional self-care as well as a challenge to connect one woman’s life with larger events going on simultaneously. This engenders a sort of humanity on all things, large and small, human or fauna.
Corrigan can say, “The tide is against us. The children slip and slip and slip away,” but also,
From this ruin, we knead kindness
into loaves, then break them. The fishes
slip and slip from our outstretched palms.
Brittney Corrigan is the author of the poetry collections Navigation, 40 Weeks, and most recently, Breaking, a chapbook responding to events in the news over the past several years. Daughters, a series of persona poems in the voices of daughters of various characters from folklore, mythology, and popular culture, is forthcoming from Airlie Press in September, 2021. Corrigan was raised in Colorado and has lived in Portland, Oregon for the past three decades, where she is an alumna and employee of Reed College. She is currently at work on her first short story collection and on a collection of poems about climate change and the Anthropocene age. For more information, visit http://brittneycorrigan.com/.
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. Her chapbook, POSTHUMAN, was the finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook contest.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.