Natalie Easton’s I’ll Buy You a Bird Instead (Femme Salvé Books, 2022) beautifully renders trauma’s all-encompassing confusion of time, place, love, and expressions of love, illuminating the ways this confusion follows us and embeds itself into the folds of our everyday lives. The real world is at once accurately rendered in the minutest of mundane details while at the same time completely reimagined, as the love that underlies all human experience is refracted through the lenses of illness, violence, and the complicated, timeless relationship between mother and daughter. Tenderly, painstakingly, Easton manages to clarify the disorientation of trauma while allowing it to retain its unknowable, inarticulable essence, suggesting that perhaps the same essence that makes pain unbearable is also what makes our love so unspeakably, intensely beautiful.
Throughout the collection, Easton creates a poignant haze of time and space that evokes the natural movement of memory, particularly in a mind that has repeatedly faced upheaval and instability. In “Valentine,” for instance, every stanza moves swiftly and unrelentingly into a different period—beginning in an unspecified Easter, we find ourselves suddenly in February, then in something like the present, though the speaker is uncertain, still situated in the past, watching her “mother, / two years dead now, [look] out the kitchen window.” The collection resists being tethered to any definite place or time, illustrating the way the past palpably and inextricably complicates our view of the present and future, as Easton confesses, “I don’t know which part of the past / to throw away.” Definitions of familial relationships are also obscured, capturing the way relationships between parent and child, sibling and sibling, elude definite boundaries, especially when they may be burdened by past unfulfilled needs. “Anthem I. Driven” addresses the speaker’s mother, remembering, “preparing your sisters’ hair for school, / you learned to braid the way you would for me—.” Here, daughter and sister are blurred into something like a single figure, possibly as a reflection of the mother’s premature shouldering of parental duties for her siblings in the past. This burden does not end with the mother, but is carried on in the speaker through shared memory as she says to her mother, “You must have worried… what part / of your history it was my job to repeat: / we both knew it wasn’t my sibling / I’d come searching for.” Through this recurring thread of shared memory, Easton shows the inexplicable ways our pain might be inherited, rather than originate from identifiable experiences.
As trauma permeates all aspects of life with confusion, it necessarily complicates love and its manifestations as well, as Easton’s carefully selected images demonstrate throughout these poems. The first poem, “Scarlet Fever,” is filled with these charged moments, as Easton recalls to her mother the experience of lying in the school nurse’s office with a fever: “I felt coated in a safe green pill, waiting / for you to come along and pick me up.” The fact that Easton encases herself in this metaphorical pill implies that for her mother to pick her up would mean she would be swallowed, utterly dissolved into her mother—easing her pain, perhaps, but simultaneously losing any sense of herself. Is this relationship good or bad? Easton meaningfully withholds the answer, loading the moment with the ambiguity that necessarily accompanies a complex love. Likewise, the poem concludes with another, similarly ambiguous moment—”You threatened me / to make me eat: you’d have them put / a needle in my vein”—here, Easton reveals that love can be found in unlikely places, such as the emptiness of a threat.
Poems like “Jack Nicholson is a Hypocrite” also show us that this strange form of love can flow both ways, as Easton recalls, “if something on my plate / seemed poison, I’d ask Mom to share it with me.” Such a confession creates an impenetrable tangle of selfish urge with the desire for utter togetherness, of wanting to fall ill with another, to find intimacy in the similarity of your pain. Easton beautifully makes these complex tangles of feeling as clear as possible without simply explaining them, echoing the way in real life we are often so afraid to say out loud what we really mean. The poem “Illinois I. The Bird Bribe,” which describes the speaker’s departure from her mother, contains the collection’s title and illuminates its loaded meaning: “the child in your eyes seemed to mourn and you said / that if I stayed, you would go out, / and you’d buy me the bird / instead.” Again, Easton shows us the profundity of love through what’s left unsaid—how love can exist at such a depth that we cannot bring ourselves to speak it aloud; only skirt around it through meaningful looks, through useless bribes. In this way, all of I’ll Buy You a Bird Instead is electric with the overpowering presence of a love that is never spoken, but felt.
I’ll Buy You a Bird Instead is available at Femme Salvé Books
Kaylee Jeong is a Korean American writer, currently studying English at Columbia University. She edits for Quarto, Columbia’s official undergraduate literary magazine, and serves as a poetry reader for the Columbia Journal’s Incarcerated Writers Initiative. A 2019 Sundress Best of the Net finalist in poetry, her work has been featured in diode, BOAAT, and Hyphen, among others.