What Does Not Return: A Review by Anna Alarcon

  • 1
  • June 3, 2020

What Does Not Return by Tami Haaland is a book filled with light. Haaland’s language is as simple and expansive as a prairie, her words rendering beauty in even the darkest of subjects: 

What light remains you see in her eyes,
her heavy lids, the bare expression of thin lips. If only the words could ready themselves.
If only the gesture could unfold.
If only the body could launch.1 

In her poems, Haaland writes frankly of her mother’s struggle with and eventual death from dementia. But even in this despair, there is light, a metaphor for life’s lasting endurance. On the page, life and death exist side by side; the natural world encroaches on each poem, serving as a reprieve from and a reminder of our small existences. Take, for example, these lines: 

She doesn’t care for tame. She prefers
incidental: yellow aster on sand, 
blue beetles in waxy cactus flowers,
for three whole days a plum in bloom.2 

They are lines firmly planted among poems about the trauma of warfare and gun violence. In Haaland’s works, there is always birdsong, there is always red poppies and rabbits, even in a world with missiles and incurable diseases. Nature exists continuously, like a heartbeat beneath the surface. In one poem, she writes: 

This dog looks like a small deer,
poised and silent in the lawn,
but at night, she is a dark body, lean
and long against the lavender cotton
of my summer sleep. We are bone
and bone, muscle and muscle, 
and underneath each surface
a quiet and insistent pulse.3 

Here is the crux of Haaland’s writing: the interconnectedness of all things. Life and death, joy and misery, all tumbling together in an endless cycle. Her work is the pulse we share with all living things. It is the light pouring into a dark room.

What Does Not Return can be purchased at Lost Horse Press.


Notes:

¹ “What Light Remains”, p. 4
² “How Sight Develops in a Dry Land”, p. 20
³ “Sleeping with the Chihuahua”, p. 58