There is a space before you wake up, you open your eyes into the dark, shafts of light shoot through the curtain, onto where: a where where there is nothing yet and you are nothing yet and all the labels you carry on your back daily have yet to hold any purchase and it’s you and a body and the darkness. Eager to Break lives inside this moment. These poems spread onto the page vapour from a river running through a tired brain. Gray themself is nonbinary and uses these poems to create an interstice to live in. The narrator is like a ghost floating above a mirror trying to reach out and touch the reflection.
In ‘How I learned to speak’ the collection lays out the estrangement between words and meaning and a body that receives and emits them. Words ‘Cause an inflammation / Which is a process of surrounding / softening the particle until it breaks’. Language itself is set up as an antagonist, which pushes the poetry into paradox. How can we speak how can we write about the things that have happened to us when words themselves are our enemies? Even when they write ‘A product of understanding’ you are aware that we might not get that from these poems, it is not for us to understand – it is Gray understanding something through the act of writing.
Gray is eager to break down language to break down a body to have a break from this nightmare hell of a world we are in, to break the binary of gender to tear down structures of power – and create something new, something in which we can grow.
But the book also depicts the narrator having grown used to the pain, become a passive participant in their own life, poems like ‘To talk about at length in counselling’ display the estrangement of finding intimacy when things feel broken. All the mundane actions: playing with a zipper, touching hands, develop this obsessive distressing quality. All the relationships in this book could be interpreted in multiple ways, the you’s and I’s blurring switching between the narrator and a partner the narrator and friend or the narrator and themself? From ‘Precursor to learning meditation’;
There are dark grooves to be worn
trenches to roll my body in
To be comfortable admitting:
I move, stranger when I’m with myself
hurt in a way different from my skin
In and out and in and out
The body and the text moving in and out of each other. The narrator and the author disconnected but passing through each other’s bodies.
How do I tell him I’ve misplaced my body?
That these angry reds and pinks
belong to someone else
That I would know if I’d burned myself because
it would hurt
This section from ‘Apply heat’ really speaks to this distance from the body. But it also speaks again of a body that is under stress, under violence and aggravation. But this pain has a point and that point is self-discovery – ‘It takes a while to get to the meat of a situation’. There are things the body goes through that you don’t want to think about, there are things the body becomes that make it more difficult to engage with the self.
‘I remember my first taste of it’ is another example of the risk these poems take for dealing with the subject matter that they do:
My therapist tells me to practice vulnerability.
I ask her what it’s like being able to swim.
How it feels to go into the water
without it filling your lungs.
This whole collection is that water sitting in your lungs, the fluid that would keep you alive on a good day but is killing you on a bad one, the body you live becoming the body you die in.
A formal thing that stuck out to me while reading the collection is how each poem moves to the next, there are no sections no breaks for the reader just this flow from moment to the next, the title of the next poem becoming the last line of the poem before it. A great pane of glass drawn complete from a lacerated throat.
And it ends reflecting how it began, with a lesson with the narrator learning something, with the narrator coming to a realisation.
If you can
’til the shaded light that skims your eyelids
Can be let in without blinding
’til the scarring flakes learn to settle
’til the path is less electric
Until you’ve learned to hurt
To speak about this body to break the expectations of a system designed for a binary of gender and sex is to learn a language of pain. This is what makes Eager to Break is a vital collection poetry. We need more work like this in the world, work that sings and screams and scrapes its way into life just to break the heart of it and feed.
About the reviewer
essa may ranapiri (Ngāti Raukawa | they/them/theirs) if they die before the end of the settler colonial nation state of NZ you owe them a revolution [their first book of poetry ransack out from VUP in July 2019]
About the author
Eliana Gray is an award winning writer living mostly in Ōtepoti, Aotearoa. Their work is like their life – sad, confronting and deeply funny. They have won the University of Otago Poetry Competition and competed as a finalist in the National Poetry Slam. Their work has been put many places, including their recent debut collection Eager to Break, which is available through Girls On Key Press. You can find them on the internet @foxfoxxfox and sometimes in real life. You can buy a copy of Eager to Break at the Poetry Portal Bookshop.
Book trailer animation by Max Howard-Martens; music production by Morgan Smillie; words by Eliana Gray; cover design by Eliana Gray and Anna Forsyth.