A writer brings poems to a gunfight and gets off more than a few clean shots.
It is a small miracle—and a testament to the author’s versatility—that Sizemore (American Love Poem, 2017, etc.) can write such a wide variety of good poems about firearms. But don’t let the title of his new collection fool you: This is not a celebration of America’s gun culture. It is a lament. The book is dedicated to “all the lives lost to gun violence in the United States, and to all the survivors,” so unsurprisingly, many of the poems read like dirges. Take “Prayer to the Cosmos,” a post-Parkland piece that tries to capture how that tragedy transforms readers: “School buses become potential hearses, / an ambulance but a carrier of bodies / from one panic attack to the next, / a diploma more like a participation trophy / in the obstacle course of a shooting gallery, / as we wring our hands and offer the wind / from our mouths as succor for blue light.” Of course, readers are changed by such bloodshed, whether it causes them to long for a peaceful future or hope to see the gun culture grow. To its credit, this collection imagines both possibilities. To the first, Sizemore writes “Needs of a Gun Enthusiast,” a lyrical, six-stanza poem whose every block begins with the same line: “I don’t need a gun.” In it, the poet gives readers an evocative, streamlined sketch of a life lived fully without firearms. But in the opposite vein, the title poem imagines a world in which guns grow “on trees”: “Is this the utopia we deserve, / land of breath by Russian roulette, / land of nitroglycerin smoke, / black residue left on the fingers / of the firing trigger fist, / land of forests where the wind / through the limbs / sounds like a chorus / of haunted pitch pipe barrels / whistling in the key of apathy?” The message here is clear: a land in which weapons are ubiquitous is no utopia. But in sketching such a possibility with sublimity and grace, Sizemore catches some of the allure of his fatal subject. That this critic of gun culture can communicate—even implicitly—some of its dark appeal renders his appraisals even more effective.
These piercing poems about firearms cut to the core.