MAY 14, 2021
“TO RECEIVE // the world, sometimes you have to displace / expectation,” Alexandria Hall writes in her debut poetry collection, Field Music, selected by Rosanna Warren for the 2019 National Poetry Series. The speaker of this collection often relays her experiences by explaining what they are not. Sex is not a bird smashing into the “wrong window.” Danger is never as exciting as its possibility. Through syntactic negation and formal gestures that delay or fragment information, Hall cultivates moments of suspense, making the reader fill empty spaces with what they assume will come next. By allowing space for assumption, Hall encourages readers to contend with their own prior knowledge about stereotypes surrounding gender and sexuality. In this way, Hall demonstrates both the intrusiveness of violent social forces and how those can limit exploration of identity and life. Each playful gesture in Field Music works to create a protective boundary around desire, emphasizing narratives of joy, agency, and possibility, particularly for young women and survivors.
In Field Music, repetition enacts the disassociation the speaker requires in order to experience intimacy. At times, Hall accomplishes this by staggering and repurposing the same image. In, “Travel Narrative,” she writes, “[t]here was too much moon over the night in Middlebury / so I put a man’s face in front of it and then I loved / that man,” which is immediately followed by, “[t]here was too much hair soaked in sweat […] so I cut off my head // and put a man’s face in front of it, and then my love / poured out like water.” As in many surrealists’ paintings — Toyen’s, Picasso’s, Kahlo’s — the image of a changed or absent face repeats, carrying implications of love and performance. In Hall’s work, a man can be loved for the way his face blocks out the light. He can be loved if his face eclipses the speaker’s like a mask, concealing her but also allowing her to conduct the thinking. The speaker’s love is located in her own labor; she carves out ways for the partner to help her realize escape. Through repeating images, Field Music reveals the ways in which partnership, especially for young women, depends on the demolition and reconstruction of the self.
When I identified as a lesbian, I was often confronted by strangers who asked if my sexual identity was formed or sparked by sexual assault. Being a survivor, I knew this question was flawed because of how it limited my experiences by centering men, but I also wondered if there was truth to it: what would that indicate about my relationships? Hall’s poem “Geosmin” is what drew me to this collection. I felt close to its speaker, who emphasizes the ways in which the violent behaviors of a patriarchal society can actively disrupt first queer erotic encounters rather than forming or inspiring them. In this poem, the speaker’s history hangs over the intimate scene:
Her shoulders were much smaller
than mine. I wasn’t sure
how to touch them. If a man
ever felt that way about my body,
how could he
go on touching me?
It was surely a very bad thing.
Hall’s line breaks highlight how previous sexual experiences with men have taught the speaker to assign sacredness and fragility to her own body, qualities which transpose onto the woman before her. The presentation of this awareness is delayed as the logic breaks mid-thought: “smaller / than mine.” Contrastingly, the two lines centered on critiquing male positionality in sex are complete statements. The last is end-stopped. The duality between what is sure and what is developing emphasizes a cultural focus: the desire of cishet men. During her first queer encounter, these binaries govern the role the speaker is able to imagine herself in.
Complementing “Geosmin,” “First Time” asserts agency through metaphor, demonstrating the ways in which desire can be drawn from anger. Here and elsewhere, the speaker’s power is located most clearly in moments of humor. Throughout this poem, she utilizes a casual, conversational tone to undercut any attempt at glorifying the first man she slept with. “Nice guy, sure,” she states. “Romantic, I guess.” Although this dialogue is internal, the qualifiers suggest that the speaker has learned to prepare herself for disagreement. Puncturing narratives of innocence surrounding “virginity,” the speaker explains she “wanted him to toss his head / back and never roll it up, / evaporating like a tired dandelion.” What she asserts here is the opposite of forming attachment: she wants the act of sex to complete the boy’s purpose, to render him a taproot stripped of its seed heads. “Amid the stirring of field mice / and garter snakes,” she admits, “I longed for / the jolt of a hand caught in the thresher.” In her first experience with sex, the only shock is the boredom that uncovers her desire for controlled violence. Garter snakes are slow, largely benign; they can be caught by children. Even the suggestion of them hunting is described here as “stirring” — quiet, without urgency — and lessened further in contrast to the thresher. These comparisons, which give space and tangibility to the speaker’s erotic interests and needs, shrink the male subject.
Field Music is guided by Hall’s propulsion toward logic, which is often rooted in realism and self-advocacy. “You have to be able to leave yourself before you can truly leave another,” she states in “I Contain Myself Needfully.” This line could act as a thesis or a map for many moments throughout the collection. Nearly every poem presents this notion of a kind of knowledge that can only be reached through abandonment. Abandonment of roles, of others, of harmful constructions of the self. Hall is never working to promote negligence, but rather the types of risk that are necessary for fulfillment and survival, especially for women who are often held to arbitrary responsibilities. That trap concerning gender — of obligatory kindness and duty — is a component of the self, a component that must be shed in order to accomplish something as ordinary as ending a partnership. Hall suggests in her poem’s declarative title that this form of abandonment is not selfish, but “needful.”
At the base of Field Music, of its fragmentation, honesty, wisdom, and subtle humor, is the glowing notion of what survives. Perhaps more than any poem I’ve encountered, Hall’s “My Love” replicates the difficulty of retelling the experience of sexual assault. She accomplishes this through her use of incomplete syntax: “That thing that happened once happened again … happened to me differently. It depended me to you.” Here, the resistance and endurance of spirit is told through what is clipped, through the gaps where we learn what she has learned: how to negotiate the aftermath of trauma without recreating it. If every writer is tasked with imagining and constantly adapting their own rules about how to present violence on the page, Field Music is an important guide for how to write toward an audience of survivors who are rarely given the warnings they may require to interact with a text. By emphasizing delivery and craft over shock or evocation, Hall’s poetics mirror the experience of learning to speak with precision and care. No narrative elements are lost through this process. Instead, we are given the opportunity to witness what arrivals surface when harmful descriptions are avoided or imagined out. Field Music is a masterclass in how to prioritize the readership, lives, and experiences of survivors.