REVIEW: ODES TO LITHIUM – SHIRA ERLICHMAN (ALICE JAMES BOOKS)

last night in an unprecedented turn of events
I held my suffering to my ear & heard.

from “Pink Noise”

Kay Redfield Jamison describes Odes to Lithium as “a remarkable book…beautiful, deeply perceptive, haunting, and original.” And I suppose this should come as no surprise. Jamison was my first introduction into mental health conversations, her book Night Falls Fast recommended to me in the wake of a friend’s suicide. I was fifteen and didn’t have the language, let alone a sustained conversation, to discuss what was happening inside me, to process what had happened to my friend.

I have given Jamison’s book to dozens of students over the past decade, each processing their own ideation or another’s exit. I have buried students, talked with others through their stays in psychiatric wards and the impossibility of returning to high school after being let out. I’m thirty-six now. Jamison has been a constant. But Erlichman gives us something different. Hers is the book I wish I’d had all these years. Night Falls Fast helped me understand. Odes to Lithium helps me breathe.

Perhaps more serendipitous is the fact that I came to Erlichman’s book by way of a student, Jade Piña. She is brilliantly talented and relentlessly generous. The first time I met her, I gifted her a copy of my book. When she heard I was yearning to read Erlichman’s, she sent me a copy. My relationship with mental health has always been a circle, teacher to student, student to teacher. And that’s what makes Erlichman’s collection so powerful, so necessary. It is a perfect bridge between generations, between neurotypical and neurodivergent, between the quiet and the unquiet mind.

Erlichman writes with notable honesty. Readers get the sense that they have been invited not just into Erlichman’s mind, but into a guided tour of themselves. She has a command of craft, illustrated by her ability to experiment with form and create poems that move beyond the lyrical and capture the reality of a mind that does not always have control of itself. While the collection could easily carry a tone of despair, Erlichman chooses gratitude, as illustrated in “If You Were Someone,” in which she tells Lithium,

Don’t you see?

At night I shake tablets into my palm.
But if you were someone?
You’d be real. I’d hold you & thank you.

These lines perfectly capture the central message throughout Odes to Lithium. As the title suggests, this is a collection of love poems. The love is honest and complex, rather than idealized, which is one of the strengths of the book as a whole. Mental health is never romanticized, but it is also not vilified. Like a real relationship, Erlichman’s connection to Lithium, and to mental health overall, has moments of clarity and moments of frustration. When considering a poem about clouds, Erlichman laments: “The Former Poet Laureate of the United States/wrote an eight-nine line poem about clouds & I/want to write about clouds but all I can see/is this bruise on the inside of my inner-elbow the needle left…” Those who live with mental health issues are familiar with this inability to see past the pain and its effects, but Erlichman pulls the reader back from moments like this brilliantly, likening the bruise to clouds and allowing both to exist without shame.

As with much of Erlichman’s art over the years, her first full-length collection centers strength and hope. Near the end of the collection, in “Pink Noise,” she writes, “the name for the shortcut humans make through shrubbery/that becomes preferred to the gravel road is ‘desire path.’/without blueprint, we beat our path into the ground/until others can walk there.” The poem culminates with an audience member approaching Erlichman after a show to declare, “I’m one of us.” These lines highlight the importance of Odes to Lithium, a book that is driven by and dedicated to creating a sense of community among those who live with mental health issues. In that regard, it is a collection that deserves space in conversations about both craft and healing.

This book is, quite simply, indispensable. My only lament is that it does not fit in my pocket, as it is the kind of collection one wishes to have with them at all times, the sort that reminds one how to live with equal parts grief and grace.

Purchase your copy of Odes to Lithium from Alice James Books.

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