History is a narrative. Narrative is a trauma response. Your skin is my coat, made of many thin coats. It took years to make.
From “Figure [ ? ]”
Removal Acts is a rich and fraught collection that confronts the legacy of displacement and erasure with searing honesty. Debut author Erin Marie Lynch does not shy away from hard questions, including her right to some of the stories in her collection. At the heart of the collection is Lynch’s determination to act as a faithful witness, both to the narratives she encounters and to her own quest to internalize the parts of her lineage that have been historically suppressed. Removal Acts combines technical prowess and attention to craft with deliberate experimentation, signaling Lynch as a poet with talent that far surpasses expectations for a debut author.
The first and most overt act of removal occurs in the way that Lynch has structured the collection, which is split into two sections: Foreward, and Afterward. The extrication of a central or main act works to de-center the White hegemonic narrative of Indigenous peoples in the United States, effectively establishing Removal Acts as an intentional counter-public space and returning agency, through Lynch, to the Lakota that have been physically and historically erased.
Forward consists of a single poem, “To This I Come.” Written as a litany, the poem has echoes of Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, grounding it as a point of origin both structurally and linguistically. Each line begins with the word “from,” further emphasizing its function as the origin point for the speaker and for the collection. The very first line asserts that the speaker comes “From the claim I lay to those no longer with me – “ The question of the speaker’s claim to lineage deepens as Lynch juxtaposes images of an uncle that spoke Dakota “who died with no one to speak to” with images of a mother that “never knew,” even as the speaker admits that “no–/longer-knowing is the State’s project–” Against the fraught distance between her uncle and her mother, the speaker writes of her “stomach walls collapsing, night after night,” bridging the silence around her family’s history with her own visceral act of erasure.
Lynch includes three poems which share the title, “Removal Act.” The first of these poems is a visually striking prose poem which forms an empty frame on the page. The words encircle a large white space in which the words “Using this image: Sorry, this image is not available for download” appear. As readers move through the poem, the speaker describes how people in the family “keep a portrait Mato Sabi Ceya, [their] grandfather’s grandfather (great great great).” The family finds the portrait “on the website of the museum that has acquired the original,” but they are not permitted to download it and so must “screenshot the image, print it with shitty ink-jets, then cut the paper into smaller rectangles measured to fit dollar store picture frames.” Lynch manipulates the page to center the continued erasure of her family, urging readers to contend with the absence of the image at its core.
Lynch intensifies her attention to absence in the sparse and abrupt poem “Bloodlines,” which utilizes noticeably short lines and direct language to describe the incomplete history of the speaker’s family:
eyes scanned up
our tiny photos,
[ ? ] standing
for the missing,
born and dead.
The injection of [ ? ] invites readers to consider another series of poems that each carry the title “Figure [ ? ].” Each of these poems puts the speaker in direct conversation with a number of scholars and poets ranging from Bhanu Khapil to Amiri Baraka to Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart. Throughout the series, the speaker contends with her history of disordered eating, as well as the urge to make sense of where she belongs in her family’s fragmented history. The final entry in the series culminates in a striking moment of self-acceptance: “May my embarrassments oft open me. Split halves of a peach and the knife between—/one straight line. A clean wound, observed.” Ending the series with the word “observed” stresses the continual insistence that the reader act as witness to the reclamation of self that permeates the collection.
Lynch defies every expectation for a debut collection, brilliantly challenging what we know of the genre as well as how we approach physical space on the page. This is a richly layered and intelligent book that refuses to be contained, most especially by the impossibly insufficient space of this review, but please afford me one last attempt to communicate its greatness:
By separating Removal Acts into a Foreward and an Afterward, Lynch seems to proclaim: We Were, We Are. This assertion mirrors the strength and boldness of the individual poems, solidifying the collection as a vital addition not just to American poetry but to the history of the Lakota people.