The sinister lever-pull that will not right us
came swift in November, behind curtains like
a row of locker room showers where you tried
to scrub yourself of something. I am trying
to know what that something is…
From “Initial Descent”
Alicia Mountain follows up her award-winning debut, High Ground Coward, with an ambitious set of heroic crown sonnets in her latest collection, Four in Hand. The book includes four heroic crowns, each one comprised of fourteen interconnected sonnets and one master sonnet. The subjects and styles are distinctly varied. One section engages traditional blank verse, while another embraces white space as the author includes just one word per line in each sonnet; one section interrogates the election of former president Donald Trump, while another functions as a found poem that pulls from numerous newsletters sent by Merrill Lynch financial advisors. Four in Hand invokes one of the most complex and classic poetic forms in its layered critique of the United States.
The first crown, “Train Town Howl,” is a rich narrative that chronicles queer love against the backdrop of heteronormative conservatism. The first sonnet in the sequence introduces the speaker and her lover, who “were both drawn to scale” and “both fold small for safekeeping.” In the next sonnet, the speaker calls, “When were in love, men would ask/if we were sisters—their wicked way of/denying what was already buried and plain.” The sequence culminates in a master sonnet that reflects on the speaker’s time with the lover, proclaiming, “This book is a monument to touch,/however quick, however long it lasts.” While it is clear that the speaker and her lover no longer together, the conclusion of the narrative is grounded in gratitude and grace, with the speaker telling her former lover, “Whomever you love, they belong beside you.”
“Sparingly,” the second heroic crown in the collection, is an appropriately titled sequence in which each sonnet contains just fourteen words, each one on its own line. Mountain arranges the poems in the center of the page, maximizing white space and emphasizing the importance of each scene in the sequence. Across the sonnets, Mountain couches images of climate destruction in memory. The speaker first recalls, “we/saw/a/bald/eagle/here/once/remember.” As the sequence progresses, readers encounter “absent/water,” “seismic/score/marks,” and “harvest/fed/famine/beside/glut” as the speaker laments the “ruin/mounting/with/each/storm.” Mountain pares the heroic crown down to only the most essential syllables in an effective and ominous mirror of the ways in which humans continue to deplete natural resources.
The third crown, “Initial Descent,” is grounded in the election of Donald Trump and the ramifications of that election. Mountain opens the sequence with a recollection of pulling the lever, a symbolic image of casting a vote, which she compares to something that must be washed off in the locker room shower. By the end of the sequence, the speaker laments, “Not in my lifetime, as far as I can remember,/has an act of the body become so consequential.” Mountain continues her critique of capitalism in the final crown, which reconfigures words and phrases from Merrill Lynch newsletters. While this is the least coherent crown in the collection, the incomprehensibility echoes the jargon and legalese that often cloud communication from financial advisors and politicians alike. Mountain uses the words of Merrill Lynch against them, creating a sequence that gives voice to the greater financial system in America and, ironically, uses that voice to acknowledge the many ways in which it works to subjugate its consumers.
Four in Hand is a unique and challenging collection that, in many ways, uses the structures of the system to highlight the myriad flaws in that system.