» Book Review
Review: The Last Unkillable Thing by Emily Pittinos
University of Iowa Press, April 15, 2021
Paperback, $20.00, 68 pages.
Few first poetry collections dazzle with the freshness, lyrical alacrity, and tender surprise found in Emily Pittnos’s debut collection, The Last Unkillable Thing, winner of the 2020 Iowa Poetry Prize. At its center is the tragic, untimely death of the speaker’s father, with many of the poems asking how one can bear to live in the world after such loss. And while the imagery of death and the natural world forms the foundation of this collection, the poems are never afraid to venture onward, pushing past the immediate shock of grief and into the world in which one must continue. These poems ask questions a less intrepid poet might avoid. The result is dark and stunning—raw, yet crafted with undeniable guile.
At the heart of the collection’s opening poem, “Assuming, once again, it’s done with,” lie the lines “A lapse in grief / is another emptiness; a space, in turn, filled by the usual remembering.” This emptiness is the space in which The Last Unkillable Thing stakes out its territory, as if to say I knew to expect grief—but what comes afterward? The poem continues, “the unthinkable / made so possible as to become fact—he vanished / and she went on,” which is a dynamic that drives the poems without constraining them. What might it mean to interrogate the self in the face of all-consuming grief?
Yet, while the poems focus on tragedy, they still find ways to push against the establishment of genre, experimenting with punctuation, white space, the line, the sequence, the function of form. A series of poems, each titled “After,” alternates between fragments caught in justified blocks and gorgeous, italicized long lines. Other poems, such as “With Key in the Door,” use the colon as an associative tool, as in the lines “It is impossible to quit: / forecasting an alternate life : hazy glow in which : / I am brighter : kinder : unorphanable.”
As the different modes of language in The Last Unkillable Thing coalesce, a rich, complex interiority begins to emerge. Death may have been the catalyst for this collection, but the speaker allows her interrogations to venture beyond guilt, forgiveness, vulnerability, longing, and desire. Often, the speaker implicates herself by speaking through the lens of an animal. In this vein, “Study of a Lone Beast” oscillates between the fear of further loss and the precarious act of weaving a spider’s web, opening with the stanza “The false widow builds her web / in a chasm—the grace of risk, / her passage of silk an act / of survival,” a set of lines which holds the simultaneous beauty and danger of living clearly in front of the reader’s eye. The poem ends in a similarly haunting stanza:
Suppose the worst does happen—
by sunrise the web wrecked, glittering
With snowfall, and where has she gone
the queen of this realm?
There’s an unmistakable beauty in the destruction of the image, the spider’s home destroyed by glittering snow, the false widow implicated in disaster she couldn’t possibly have stopped. The line “Suppose the worst does happen” has haunted me since I first encountered it in this poem, though more haunting still are the moments where The Last Unkillable Thing accepts that the worst one could imagine has happened, and that the world has unforgivingly kept on.
Pittinos expertly uses the tool of the poetic sequence to ground the poems in this collection, holding the pieces together with bonds more powerful than mere similarities in subject. Halfway through the collection, “She Must Have Been a Bit Green to Look At” follows the speaker as “She steps into the wool of midnight,” into isolation, where she can confront the burdensome beast of grief that lurks in the shadows of the collection, reckoning with both “the menagerie inside her” and “the colorless ghost / at her bedside by morning.” Despite its length, this sequence constantly reinvents itself, taking ever-shifting angles of approach to its subject matter. “In the night hall she rises, razes / a vase to the floor,” begins one section, painting a portrait of the speaker’s psyche with the dichotomy of day. “In the morning: mice / casually rinsing / their puny hands in a puddle. // Even they, she thinks, cower not from me,” the section ends.
Another long sequence titled “Subnivean (or Holding Back the Year),” which is approximately the same length, serves to build the world of The Last Unkillable Thing in much the same way, though this poem thrusts us directly into the first-person perspective of the speaker, opening with “I expected the snow, but waking stuns. / A world of storm struck white—distance / collapsed by an absence of shadow,” taking in an expanse that opens endlessly outward, enveloping the speaker in the low light of loss. Here, the language is as striking as the content is shockingly honest, as the sections are unafraid to name what troubles them. One section reads:
I’d be lost
without my own bright footpath: tilled snow:
cloud cover: moonglow refracted: the shotgun crack
of a bough unburdened.
Could I walk off the hours
I’ve spent ashamed, attempting a life
that would make the dead proud?
What would it look like,
how much would it weigh?
The section shifts boldly from the image of bent moonlight to the violent roar of a shotgun into the interior. Beyond its lushness and deft command of language, these poems, particularly the sequence poems, show the reader how the speaker sees the world—one in which cloud cover might lead to shame, in which tilled snow might represent a good life.
Even with its consistency and generous worldbuilding, The Last Unkillable Thing leaves room for discovery and surprise, as in the reluctant eroticism of “I Grow Less Visible” (“A silhouette can sway / a person—the woman releasing / her bra behind scrim. My breath more alive / than when held in) or the violent embrace of “It Is Not Animal to Forgive” (“A man dresses a deer—quick split, blood / guttered by rainfall—before pressing a woman / to his own soft belly). Here, the emptiness of a snow-covered field belongs just as much as the possibility of “the touch of joy,” found, perhaps, in “the belly of a bridegroom” or “the oyster / even without pearl,” adding to an overall sense of fullness that gives the collection its depth.
There is an ever-present danger lurking on the outskirts of this collection, as “Nightjars bed down in snow” or the eye of the poem passes over “the wood duck, displaced, alone in a shadow.” Much like the poems in this marvelous first book, human experience is endlessly complex, surprising, and unexpected, as the myriad compelling images and emotionally striking landscapes in this collection so seamlessly portray. There’s a real vulnerability in The Last Unkillable Thing that gives way to so much more, almost as if to say to be human is to grieve. And while the poems themselves are unafraid to behold beauty, they never lose sight of the pain that lingers beneath them. After all, Pittinos tells us, “Doesn’t it hurt / to be human. I’m so human I could die.”