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Review: But Not Up Here by RoAnna Sylver

For today's review, something a little different: a book of poetry! I don't review poetry often (or ever? not on this blog, anyway) but I do read it pretty regularly and I love poetry, so. When RoAnna Sylver, author of Chameleon Moon and generally cool indie writer person, asked if people were interested in ARC's of But Not Up Here to review, I was excited.

but not up here cover.png

But Not Up Here: poems about remembering in neon is a book of poems about grief, loss, and survival. It's a beautiful collection and, as a plus, the cover is gorgeous as well. 

The subtitle, "poems about remembering in neon," references one of the poems in which the speaker talks about Michelangelo's paintings. For years, the poem says, we thought he painted in drab and muted hues -- until art restoration and new technology revealed the bright colors he really used. The speaker of that poem says that anyone who looks at them would think their memories of the lost person are like his paintings -- drab, damaged by time, water (like tears), etc. But instead, "With you and me, / As with him and his rainbow-hidden centuries, / Our world was neon." Many of the poems, this one in particular, speak to trying to move on from a loss when memories are still fresh and seems like the lost person ought to be there. 

The rainbow is a recurring image; Michelangelo's centuries are "rainbow-hidden," the poems are sprinkled with bright colors and images, and at one particularly memorable point the speaker notices the rainbow in a slick of gasoline on a puddle. The clash between glorious color and descriptive imagery and the pain of grief and loss seems counterintuitive at first. We tend to associate death, grief, and loss with black and grey tones. But these images work within the collection to convey the overwhelming nature of sensations -- whether it's emotional sensations like denial and anger or sensory images bewildering the speaker as they try to deal with the fact that Earth can be beautiful and hold life and color even after they have experienced such a personal loss. 

The poems do not necessarily offer an answer for how to move on -- and in many cases, "moving on" and acceptance don't seem like a desirable goal. Rather, memory and letting the loss live and accepting what that does to someone emotionally are the focus of the poems. Towards the end, resolution comes about in several poems that focus on the future, on growth and incorporating loss into one's own survival. The book ends with the lines, "Years later, I can breathe. / And that is enough." 

The book is structured with five poems that are titled with the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, each with a separate poem between them. Then there is a series of other poems that close out the work. Not everyone moves through the five stages in order, but they are both somewhat universal and yet, in this book, deeply personal as they explore the relationship between the speaker and the lost person and their particular circumstances. 

Sylver's style is breathless with long sentences, lines and sometimes paragraphs reaching to the edge of the page. This allows a lot of lyricism but also conveys a certain desperation to many of the poems. In other poems, the long lines and sentences make it feel more conversational, especially when the speaker is talking to the lost person. When the lines break up into shorter segments, it's more noticeable. 

Sylver also uses form with italic and bolded words. I liked this because the italicized and bolded words usually fit well with the rhythm of the line. It makes you think, why is this section italicized? You "say" the lines differently in your head when they are bold. I believe poetry should be read aloud, and these italicized and bolded words both let a reader know that they are being emphasized for some reason -- and let someone who is reading them aloud demarcate a difference in the way the words should be said. 

In addition to the beautiful imagery and style, much of this book is harsh. In terms of content, it deals with some tough topics. In terms of style, imagery, and words, it also veers towards harshness and pain when necessary. It is a moving collection of poems about grief and trauma, and I definitely recommend it. 5/5 stars.

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