Joanna Rawson wants you to be frustrated. In her second book of poetry, Unrest (Graywolf Press), Rawson writes her personal manifesto, and she lets you in on her philosophy of life, the universe, and everything. What Rawson sees in this world is chaos in perpetuity, as described in her poem “Provisional Endings during Wartime”:
Tomorrow you’ll set all this chaos right.
But the thought gets lost underneath, in the undertow.
However, as chaotic as Rawson depicts the world to be, the Northfield poet’s book is more challenging than depressing. She tackles sociopolitical issues such as illegal Mexican immigration to the United States and the first female suicide bomber in the Middle East. Rawson creates the motif of a storm in her garden for both poems, which imbues them with a sense of immediacy and familiarity. By placing what are, for most Americans, unknowable situations in the realm of the known, Rawson dares the reader to not feel compassion for strangers/those who have been painted as enemies—such as in her poem “Kill-Box,” about those immigrants:
Turns out most of what goes wrong in a garden
does without meaning to,
without malice, without fault, without meaning…
As soon as the sun goes down, they swarm.
As soon as the map goes black, they come running crawling fleeing.
Come at the border in a drill across the hardpan at it and at it.
Rawson also writes about topics that will be easier for most readers to relate to—topics including religion and her family life. Whatever her subject, Rawson is unrelentingly visceral in confronting difficult, chaotic emotions. She even jumbles syntax and uses roundabout descriptions for simple words, as in her description of harvesting honey in “Blowback”:
Our reach wrecked the wax that was worked from what
the summer clover and early asters translated into, there in the cells.
This style of writing is sometimes frustrating, especially when grasping for the overall meaning of a poem. Yet when considering that Rawson’s defining characteristic of life is chaos, reading her work makes you just the tiniest bit more alive.