Review of Anhvu Buchanan's THE DISORDERED

The Disordered
Anhvu Buchanan. Sunnyoutside Press, $13.00 trade paper (62 pp) ISBN 978-1-934513-41-5

            Cause and effect are estranged and misconstrued in Anhvu Buchanan’s first book of poems, The Disordered: “anytime I’m around squirrels I twist my ankle anytime I speak in public my skin gets itchy when I sit on hardwood floors reading the Sunday paper gives me the hiccups …” One thing leads to another; we look back and see the dizzying distance we’ve covered, which may only be from one side of the kitchen to the other. We look at ourselves with concern: what’s wrong? We may have an answer, but it cannot be spoken.
            That’s what characterizes the poems in The Disordered: deep isolation, often even from the self. Each poem is written as a dispatch from a disordered state of mind. It can be tempting to “diagnose” the speaker—“Oh, that’s trichotillomania.” And that’s not the point of this work, which is written from what an imbalance or disproportion of mind feels like from inside, not what it looks like from outside. Or maybe it is the point, in that it shows us that this temptation, too, is a compulsion; that the disorder may be in the naming. It’s no coincidence that the title makes a noun of the adjective; disorder here, as often in public discussion, occupies and fills up the disordered mind/body. There are hints of life existing around and before, many having to do with family—“follow your daughter’s voice,” “I didn’t want to lose my father,” “My mother smiles and says I’m the best superhero she’s ever raised.” No relationship goes untouched, no ordinary errand uninterrupted.
            Each poem has a formal as well as a topical preoccupation—line after line beginning with “This is” or “Remember to”—and often a fierce, continuous, pauseless shape. They’re exhausting to read, not just because of the experience we enter but because of the effort the speaker calls on to keep the experience hidden. Sometimes the effort is explicit:

I am afraid. Scared I will urinate in public. That everyone will see it. I’ve been frightened for months and stay home as often as I can because of this. I take precautions. My desk at work was moved closer to the bathroom … I stay away from pools, waterfalls, puddles, fountains, watercoolers, lakes, and the rain.

Sometimes it’s quiet:

And when they brought you sleeping birds you could only think sky, sky.

Sometimes it’s burning:

… and went home and passed the time away and kept the blinds shut and hid and got angry quickly and often and stayed awake and stayed awake and nightmares and doorframes and nightmares and could only state and drift away and rub my fingers and peeling carrots and crying over the kitchen sink and again and again and nothing left to say about what I saw and what I continue to see.

The speaker in the last excerpt has witnessed an execution, and glimpses of precipitating factors and sickened worlds are visible in other poems: war, a stalker’s self-justifications, the effort a cross-dressing man makes to hide what gives him pleasure. The latter stood out particularly because it’s the secrecy the world wants, not the compulsion the mind feels, that causes the damage. Sometimes the isolation is so profound, the silence and the secrecy so deep, that the mind can’t even reach itself. The poem that brought this home to me was one of the handful that uses footnotes: its body text is tensely lyrical about the muscular requirements of silence and restraint, and the footnote text reads like this:

… Absence makes the wankers grow fonder! Beauty is in the nutsack of the beholder! All work and no play makes jack a bullshitter! The eight hundred pound jackass in the room! Good bullshit comes to those who wait! The tit doesn’t fall far from the tree! And that’s the way the fucker crumbles!

            The force of separation in this poem helped me read the other footnote-using poems in the collection and feel, as I hadn’t before, their poignancy. This one is also funny—“Beauty is in the nutsack of the beholder!”—but on the whole The Disordered didn’t make me laugh; laughter comes most often from standing aside, and these poems’ strength comes from how consumed and consuming they are, standing square in the middle of the trap, making a painful virtue of immersion. (July 2013)

Purchase The Disordered HERE.

Reviewer bio: Kate Schapira is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Soft Place (Horse Less Press). Her eighth chapbook, The Ground / The Pass / The Wave, is forthcoming this summer from Grey Book Press. She lives in Providence, where she teaches nonfiction writing at Brown and poetry in a few other places, and organizes the Publicly Complex Reading Series.