Soft skin, sharp edges: Genevieve Scanlan reviews ‘Eager to Break’ by Eliana Gray

Eager to Break, by Eliana Gray, Girls on Key Press 2019

This first collection from Eliana Gray is a stunning, startling, discomfiting debut. ‘There are those who let themselves get messy’ one poem declares – and Gray is surely one of those people. Their poetry is bloody, sweaty, visceral, of body and earth. It is also unflinchingly honest, dealing with themes of trauma and self-harm. In the front matter, author and publisher acknowledge this in a trigger warning of sorts. Yet, this collection is far from sombre – there is as much emphasis on ‘eager’ as there is on ‘break’.
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Partly this is achieved through Gray’s mix of honesty and self-deprecating, ironic bravado. ‘Past tense’ takes the reader from a therapy session to a later moment of crisis: 

The words tolerate discomfort
avoidant coping mechanisms […]

Later
An empty alleyway
Hands on my head

Head between my knees
Funny story.

There is also something life-affirming in the imagery Gray employs. Flowering plants and human anatomy, the urban and the organic are all evidence of growing, messy life: 

Pale yellow buildings, stretching towards the sky
I imagine them sunflowers
Picking up the seeds that scattered
Trying to crack them with my teeth.

Even the marks of self-harm are described as flowers:

These small wounds have started to blossom
Blooming red over my limbs. 

Gray’s poetry has a distinct sense of place – or place(s), across the globe. ‘Loneliness, isolation and the first winter in years’ takes the reader across physical distance, and time. Ōtepoti Dunedin is recognisable: 

The sun comes out to laugh at our layered
coats; wind blows a giant fuck you through my
tights.

Other Otago locations also appear: 

Somewhere past Maheno we talk about children […]
Sat in Waitati and looked at the fog like a lover. 

Love is no small part of this collection – though this is not love as simplicity, or white picket fence. Here, love and affection are (realistically) complicated, and often spill beyond monogamous bonds. Take ‘For those who believe in magic’:

It’s confusing
The rolling tilt of the planets 
The reaches of hands we’ve only just met
How we intertwine our fingers with them
How we have space to search for more […]
Even with our erratic mouths
and melting hearts
We will always, always
Have more space.

Whether connection is with one person or many, in Eager to Break it is always complex. Several poems refer to the draining demands of emotional labour – the flipside and price of love. In ‘On the eve of emotional labour’, Gray highlights the extent to which these demands fall on female-presenting people – playing on the resonances of ‘eve’/Eve, and desires to “get naked”. The demands we make of each other are depicted unflinchingly as too much, monstrous, horrific: 

They will bang on your clear glass windows
as you walk down the street crying
Begging for just a little more…

Likewise in ‘What a mess’:

How can you trust anyone to do anything?
Bodies move in unexpected ways
Twitching muscles down the road
like a zombie movie
Like a nightmare
Hungry hands of millions stretching out
from anyone who looks you in the eye.

Yet, relief also comes in moments of human connection – the same connection that can sometimes be too much. In these poems, bruises are tenderly covered with plum-lipstick kisses – and comfort appears as astonishingly, as startlingly as pain. After the hedonic flurry of the poems before, I was struck by the soft, domestic calm in ‘It will startle people’:

As you open the door
Saying, Come in
I see you
They’ll be confused
By the candles burning low
Dark wooden table set with tea
The softness of your hand
The way it feels like home
If you want to make someone cry look them
in the eyes and tell them 
You’ve done a good job.

This tenderness – a willingness to listen to all who are hurting, messy, broken, sweaty – pervades the collection at large. The same clear-eyed awareness that Gray turns on their own self, they likewise turn on others. ‘It starts with a violence’ is somehow gentle in its honest assessment: 

You send me songs
Ones you think I’ve never heard
I think you’re arrogant
I think you’re talented
I think you’re scared.

The poems centred on suicide and self-harm are indeed confronting – and, in a debut of an impressive length, emotionally draining at times. The warning at the beginning of the book is apt. The most unflinching of these poems appear at the end of the collection – perhaps in an attempt to avoid any sense of neat resolution. 

The collection’s final line speaks to a time in the future, a time to survive until – “until you’ve learned to hurt”. This painful, necessary skill is what the figures in Gray’s poems seem to be teaching themselves, again and again. And though the final poems evoke brutal scenes of self-harm, I find myself drawn back to earlier lines, about surviving isolation and winter: “I’m trying to see the ice like crystals. I’m trying my very best.”

In Gray’s writing, sharp edges certainly glitter.

 – Genevieve Scanlan

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Genevieve Scanlan lives and writes in Ōtepoti Dunedin. She has reviewed poetry for Landfall and HAMSTER magazine, and has had poems of her own published in The Rise Up Review, The Otago Daily Times, and Poetry New Zealand.

Eager to Break is available from  https://www.girlsonkey.com/poetryportalshop/Eager-to-Break-Eliana-Gray-p127089532

 

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