"I ATE A CHEESEBURGER / after your funeral / with our mutual friends." So writes Portland poet and comics writer Robyn Bateman in her latest chapbook, Dead As, conveying in three lines the uncomfortable, mundane details that follow death, when you'd rather stop all the clocks and cut off the telephone, but you still have to eat.
Fragmented, tight language that honestly examines awful situations is my literary weakness. Think Maggie Nelson's sad blue habitats for heartbreak and the specter of death in Bluets, or Karen Green's paintings and text documenting grief-induced colorblindness in Bough Down, written after the death of her husband, David Foster Wallace. These books stay with me not because reading about misery is fun, but because they're a challenge. At times, they seem almost too honest, too open. In a lot of contemporary literature, there isn't much genuinely at stake; in these books, there is.
Dead As fits into this category on a smaller, distilled scale. Bateman's book, available from Portland's Bone Tax Press, is only 18 pages long, each one a fragment documenting "the year six people / died in a row." It's tiny and gorgeous and fits into a pocket, which makes the almost palpable sense of grief it delivers extra dislocating.
In fact, dislocation is a key through line in Dead As, from its opening pages describing a flock of jays that "explode from the ground / like magnetic sand," to Bateman's speaker's alienation from herself and her surroundings, conveyed in lines like, "I watched [a thunderstorm] / the way / a toad might watch / a creek all day: / fat and from a distance." Bateman's speaker longs for the distant dead; they become the void Dead As builds around but never describes, an absent center throwing the speaker's survival into odd relief. "I am the miracle," she says, "of every death / around me."
Bone Tax is a small operation, co-managed—with a concurrent reading series—by Zachary Cosby and Ross Robbins (whose book All In Black Blood My Love Went Riding was released earlier this year by another local press, Two Plum). But should you mistake small for low profile, Writing in All Caps is The Breath Mint of the Soul—the latest from CAConrad, the prolific BOMB Magazine-dubbed "John Muir of Poetry Residencies"—is next up from Bone Tax. If Dead As is any indicator, we should expect big things from this tiny press.