“For every//passageway leads to potential/and to poison. We drink//what we can, reaching and grateful.”
This line is from the titular poem of Amy Strauss Friedman’s collection The Eggshell Skull Rule. The poem’s epigraph explains the meaning of the “eggshell skull rule.” It states that the unexpected frailty of the injured person is not a valid defense to the seriousness of any injury caused to them. This poem stands alone, outside that book’s three sections, as prologue and warning. The idea that one may never know the severity of damage caused but is nonetheless responsible for it, is a terrifying way to look at the relationships that populate this book and all of our lives.
These poems have many voices: mother and daughter, lover and island, and navigate many roles with a steady gaze toward survival. Several poems in Strauss’ collection point out how the influence of all relationships, especially the strained ones, lingers despite distance and circumstance.
In “Archipelago,” a kitchen renovation serves as grounds for a tumultuous mother/daughter dynamic:
“We’d like an archipelago,” I told her.
Each our own small island to return to
when the salt water my daughter and I feed each other
trammels the tides of our throats.
And in “Some Give in the Joints,” a mother and daughter do a toxic dance that somehow is still beautiful and even sustaining:
We heave the holy bricks
into layer cake.
Spin mortar into silk.
Work in tandem
to block the sound of the other
until we can’t hear
our gasping, breath
growing shallow. Until we lie
on opposite sides
of the same partition,
culling breath from the other’s lungs.
No matter what role is being explored, Friedman’s speaker writes with authority about how to refuse, how to forgive, and how to heal. The speaker in these poems recognizes the harm done, studies it. In “Rebirth, Reimagined,” the speaker forgets in order to forgive : No longer do you pick at scabs of old wounds/bleeding me into an intolerable tomorrow/ […}I absolve you/through your erasure. This need to erase the past, to refuse its ruin and start again, recurs throughout the collection’s terse and simple diction. This refusal is amorphous, as in the poem “Splintered Objects Resist Classification” where Friedman writes:
My heart’s a movable city, transplanted.
Mother uprooted it often. Watered it bloody.
Traced its cracks with twigs,
mapped to a tree split by lightning.
A rivulet run dry.
Need and damage are intertwined in these poems as Friedman alternates between naming a mother’s failures –“empty cupboard cruelty, chalk-line absences– and longing for a deeper connection–she would swallow mother still/coat her lungs in fairy tale. The mother figure in the collection haunts the white space of each poem, even when she is not referenced in the content. There is mourning here, but a mourning that promises release, as in the poem “Larger Than Us”–
White mass indicates the tumor has grown
but all I see are the outlines of seagulls
eroding at the edge of a beach.
In this litany of injury, there is a sense of escape, that the victim has survived to be a woman who will prosper. In “The Past is Prologue” Friedman hints in the title that this woman will make her own mistakes, but will do it on her own terms:
Children do not wash easily down the drain.
They clink inside pipes, backlog sinks.
Drown in puddles of want.
Expan when we cannot save them.
What do I call an expanding girl? Alive alive alive.
The poems mostly occupy single pages, ranging from tiny prayer-like odes to lyric poems of resilience and from prose poem explorations to pop culture references. The speaker throughout the book questions, unearths, and regains her agency, most clearly seen in the poem “What I Would Salvage in a Fire.” The poem lists unmade mistakes, dead-end jobs, mean unspoken thoughts, family photos “gritty as sandpaper/ and saltwater soaked// in heaving, throaty secrets.” But then there is a reclamation with the line “I’ve earned the right to burn them myself.”
In this same poem, Friedman includes lines that speak directly to reader, almost an auto-review of the collection: “There’s an economy of words/that feels wrong here//and too much to rescue/I can’t reach.” These poems, simultaneously sparse and rich, mimic the yin and yang of an eggshell itself. It is a throw-away item, but it also incubates life. With the poems in this collection, Friedman has struck a delicate balance between these opposites, revealing how powerful and how fragile all human relationships can be.
The Eggshell Skull Rule
by Amy Strauss Friedman
Kelsay Books, 2018
Paperback, 78pp. $14.00
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recently The Girl (Porkbelly Press). Her reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Quarterly West, Sugar House Review, Cider Press Review, Tinderbox Poetry, and other journals.