Sundress Reads: A Review of The Hatchet and the Hammer

Caitlin Scarano’s The Hatchet and the Hammer out of Ricochet Editions, plunges the reader into a constant threat of violence from many sources, both remembered and anticipated, familial and domestic. The book’s title casts the speaker’s father and her ex-lover as two potentially dangerous archetypes that set this cycle of fear in motion, one that feels ever-present even though both men are not currently in her life. Scarano explores each male figure’s different mental illnesses, thus complicating her relationships with them. As the speaker seeks control of her body, as well as her family’s history of violence against women, she begins to question her own mental health and her part in these patterns of violence. Scarano’s work masterfully meditates on whether it is possible to heal from trauma when violence itself is a part of one’s lineage.

In this book-length poem’s opening sections, Scarano startles the reader with several disturbing images of domestic assaults that the speaker’s grandfathers, her own father, and her sister’s partner have committed. She also includes her own ex-lover’s imagined attack against herself. The speaker states, “Hammer, shotgun, fist, fingers, and hatchet / Cataloguing in order to reclaim.”

As this long, sectioned, poem unfolds, Scarano’s narrative moves nonlinearly to demonstrate the way in which trauma from the speaker’s past is relived in her current life, even without her father and her lover, “X,” in it. Sections of poetry and prose appear before and after medical research as if the speaker were providing evidence of the origin of violence in her family and diagnoses of her father’s alcoholism, X’s Harm OCD, and her own alcoholism and potential OCD. Her catalog of violence, complicated by its intersections with mental illness, makes several difficult truths clear; learning that the speaker comes from a line of violent men and that her loved ones could harm her, is a process from which the speaker struggles to recover.

Though Scarano focuses on the speaker’s frustration and anger as she watches her father’s health deteriorate and her fraught relationship with X dissolve, she does not present these men with hate.

Regarding both her father and X, the speaker notes, “this was my line of thinking:/ You can convince him to love you,/ you can make him well,/ if you simply/ find the right offering.” The speaker’s father is a fearful figure in The Hatchet and the Hammer’s first pages, yet he is rendered harmless and pitiable on his deathbed after years of heavy drinking. Perhaps her inability to save her father from his addiction pushes the speaker to stay with X despite the toll it takes knowing he fights urges to hurt her due to his diagnosis of Harm OCD.

The speaker says point-blank, “At his work, he puts a picture of me in a drawer in an attempt to stop/ what we’ll come to refer to as the bad thoughts, / vague euphemism, the way a child would describe their fear.” The speaker makes it clear that X never physically harmed her, and that he fought each day to quell these intrusive thoughts. Scarano’s work is not one-sided; she allows us to empathize with these men in their struggles with alcoholism and OCD, even as we witness the toll their presence takes on the speaker’s body and mind.

Scarano’s braided narrative deftly interweaves threads regarding the speaker’s sexual desires by introducing her relationship with another man, “Y.” When Y notices her body’s warmth, the speaker observes, “My body an engine, a wrist-thick rat snake in the Virginia sun. My body finally finding a purpose to outpace her anger.”

While the speaker questions her newfound obsession with sex, Scarano demonstrates how it becomes an avenue to seek control. The speaker later asserts, “I ask Y to make it hurt./ Just a bit, just like that./ There is always a line.” While it may initially surprise readers to know the speaker wants to feel pain, Scarano highlights how the speaker has found a relationship in which she has power, and that she is not afraid to wield it. Scarano’s nicknames for the speaker’s lovers, X and Y, suggest that these relationships are variables interacting with her family’s history of violent men, and while both relationships end, the speaker leaves the second more certain of what she wants and needs. A section of found text in The Hatchet and the Hammer reads, “We cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.” Scarano presents an internalization of violence through the speaker’s self-harm in certain memories (skin-picking, for example, as part of her possible OCD), combatted by her assertion of power and autonomy in sexual relationships, thereby moving the focus from male violence of the past to her own body, mental health, and survival.

In the book’s last pages, Scarano leaves us with the knowledge that this lineage of violent men will not continue through the speaker after she declares that she will not have children. Violence is wrought in many of Scarano’s descriptions of commonplace things, as if it is inescapable; she writes, “The years open and close/ like a father flexing his fist.” However, like the book’s nonlinear form that conflates the past and present as if they are one and the same, Scarano demonstrates that conflicting feelings toward a person who has caused pain can exist at the same time. We know that the speaker condemns her father’s domestic abuse, yet we can understand why she looks at a picture of him as a young boy and yearns to know the person he was before he harmed anyone. Scarano addresses mental illness with nuance, allowing us to understand that the speaker’s relationships with her father and X are more complicated than pure fear or hate.

With remarkable poignancy, she uses the speaker’s specific traumas to question how to unlearn the violence that makes up our own flesh and blood. This striking, moving narrative is vital and necessary in understanding how to reckon with the painful truths that make up our family histories, and how to forgive ourselves for the things we cannot save.

The Hatchet and the Hammer is available at Ricochet Editions

Emmalee Hagarman earned her MFA in poetry at The Ohio State University, where she served as poetry editor of The Journal. Recently her work was selected by Kenyatta Rogers to receive the Academy of American Poets Award/The Arthur Rense Prize, and also selected by Ruth Awad to receive the Helen Earnhart Harley Fellowship in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Waxwing, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Laurel Review, among others.

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