Sundress Reads: Review of The Death Spiral

How do reflections of a past humanity co-exist with the present, or grow into our future? Author and professor Sara Giragosian asks this question between the lines of her poetry collection, The Death Spiral (Black Lawrence Press, 2020). By evoking visceral convergences, repetitions, and breakdowns of organic matter, Girgosian situates America in the Anthropocene—not just as a space of mass extinction and climate change, but also as a point of political upheaval, colonialization, and cultural erasure.

Nomadically waltzing between seedpods, crosswinds, rock membranes and raptors (both extinct and living), The Death Spiral recognizes the Paleolithic and present as migratory states rather than time periods. In this malleable temporality, love and death become ingesting and ingested things that creep into us all, causing us to ask of our surroundings, “If there are cracks in the world where spirits pass through, slow this scene—let me live in the still / when you hover in mid-air to drink the honeysuckle in.” You will find this stillness at the closure of the collection, after forming a truer understanding of the fossilized and forgotten—the echoes of national mistakes Giragosian amplifies with words that rip and free.

The Death Spiral is divided into three sections, each with its own balance of urgency and upliftment. In the first section, “Emergency Procedures,” Girgosian brings awareness to the exile of the Yup’ik (the earth’s first climate refugees), the deep traces of systematic racism present in the US Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, and her great-grandmother’s story as a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Amongst these considerations, Giragosian presents family history as a victim to colonialism, terror as a person with favorites, and God as a force as “anonymous / and intimate as a nurse who can deliver pain / or take it away.” In this open-faced recognition of cruelty and fear, Girgosian reminds us that “Nature is neither cruel nor moral, / but she’s irrepressible / as a kink in the nervous system”. The presentation of this ambivalent yet unstoppable natural force feels like the modem by which we are told to trace our truest form of history with tactile diligence, remapping the ancestral land that has been too often erased. It is a triumphant, if pained, call for justice.

The second section, “To Kingdom Come”, makes its presence known with the gentle propositional poem “Origins.” Here, the first line theorizes, “suppose we / were intimate / before the Bang / all of us / you and me / and the cosmos / cramped in at a point / finer than an atom.” The connectivity of a collective comes to the forefront, making us aware of the ways our dreams, movements, and actions pulse out a vibration we are capable of feeling with humble acuteness. Traversing dark and dirty energy to travel through towns including Terlingua Texas, Beacon New York, and the Rio Grande, Giragosian encompasses the experiences of immigrant families facing a “wild-eyed” America “rehearsing his blunt sand trap quiz.”

This presentation of a restrictive, nationalistic consciousness contrast the moments of connectivity Giragosian proposes at the beginning of this section. By doing so, Giragosian shifts between first, second, third person plural perspectives, as well as the anonymity of a character called E., in order to dare exclusionists to “private tour your way around my mind / too gaslighted by Sparkle the Racist, Boo Boo the Homophobe, and Frisky the Sexist / to be any good to you now.” The multiplicity of perspectives allows readers to hold an orbital view of American discrimination at the same time that Giragosian asserts connectivity as a source of understanding and love. Ultimately it is the hopeful message of connection that makes headway through the title poem, “The Death Spiral”. Here, Giragosian evokes the courtship ritual of eagles to propose, “Suppose that to marry is to defy death / talon to talon, / to promise to learn together the art / of freefalling as mutual deference.” The feeling of interlocking talons—another instance of deep connection—is not just a plummeting force in this poem, but a mutual respect with the power to fall upwards. By spotlighting this action, Giragosian suggests a similar move for our communities—an activism which freefalls with mutual deference.

Thus, in the final section, “Father Absence,” The Death Spiral  takes a step past connectivity to ingestion—embrace. Here, Giragosian writes of a sort of decomposition in which nature fits into humanity, and vice versa. She writes to a T-Rex stillborn to say, “And when your ghost squirms / in my spleen, I know the foreboding’s inbred.” Backcountry situates in a human “I” narrator with gill slits, bat bones resembling a grandmother’s hand, and memories are either from a former life as a Galapagos Marine Iguana, or as the detritus of organic matter. What Giragosian accomplishes in her final section, and throughout The Death Spiral as a whole, is a sensation that our history, pain, deaths, memories, and mistakes are all shared, traceable, organic matter. In writing The Death Spiral, Sara Giragosian illustrates the past that we, as a community, must recognize as traceable, breathing, and still waiting for honest representation.

The Death Spiral is available at Black Lawrence Press


Hannah Olsson holds a double BA in Cinema and Creative Writing English from the University of Iowa. During her time in Iowa, Hannah was the president of The Translate Iowa Project and its publication boundless, a magazine devoted to publishing translated poetry, drama, and prose. Her work, both in English and Swedish, has been featured in boundless, earthwords magazine, InkLit Mag, and the University of Iowa’s Ten-Minute Play Festival.

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