The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With
Publication Date: Monday, March 05, 2018
About this Book
Daniel Lawless knows—as one of his poem titles has it— “The Memory of My Memory Is My Memory.” Like everything else in this wrenching, dazzling volume, remembering is mediated by wit and skepticism. These are poems of great beauty and authentic pain, as well as a wincing humor. The world in these poems comes at the reader as a mesmerizing swarm of images. (“Your footprints, in the dew-soaked grass, / Made a line like an exclamation mark / With a ball of panties as a period.”) These images sting as much as they please aesthetically. Their cumulative effect is a kind of sorrowful wonder. Lawless’s The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With is a book you will not forget.
"THE GUN MY SISTER KILLED HERSELF WITH is a guided tour of the whirlwind. Behind the sizzle and torque of Lawless' charged poetry, there's the blade of the actual. Violence is a fact, absolutes are fragile, extinction is at Safeway. Lawless' fierce and tender insights inscribe themselves in the awareness that insight can't undo hurt. But if beauty is the beginning of terror--and Rilke is hidden in this book--terror leads to beauty: the thrill of rolling the dice breath by breath against impossible odds, a wild subversive wit, a disabused but utterly genuine romantic lyric. Always the lens zooms in to the visceral: "the bare patch rubbed raw on a cat's paw--/for some, that's the soul..."
THE GUN MY SISTER KILLED HERSELF WITH is unforgettable work, essential reading for a day at the beach or a cozy winter evening in a world that could shatter at a breath."
The whole gritty world is Daniel Lawless' muse, a planet where women go mad, cars are wrecked, arms lost, wrists slit, and through it all the poet "wears time like a dark suit" and pulls together the images of the past and all its chaotic delirium into a gorgeous opera that's like a collaboration between Mozart and a wildman screaming on a street corner about the owl in his head. These poems take words and make them beating flesh and blood. A dark and beautiful collection.
A sublime metaphorist, Daniel Lawless makes The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With a testament to the life of the mind over the matter of family. His poems read as if they were written by an emergency first responder who is also a gentleman in a chair in Paris raptly engaged with his livres. Sudden surreal images from the poet’s imaginative stream bob into the extreme personal upheavals of these poems, while the poet regards them unflinchingly—and with a playful calm. Positioned in the middle of this profound book is a poem that could be its subtitle: “The Memory of My Memory is My Memory.” Daniel Lawless, who wrote for years without publishing, now proves himself a mature poet in his debut collection. The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With seems to spring from a kind of 21st-century poetic godhead.
Like none other, these poems evoke a sensation I’ve never felt before. It was as though I was watching television at the moment when black and white was on its way out and color was the new thing. Young people got it, but old timers who’d had TVs for years sometimes they said they didn’t understand what the marketers were getting at since they had no problem seeing the yellow of the sun, the blue of the ocean, the red of the bad guy’s blood when he took one in the chest. A masterful programmer, Daniel Lawless steers me past canvases that could have been painted by Hopper or Chagall, though the next thing I know, I’m inside a photo by Walker Evans or Weegee. Along with the visual shifts come turns in mood, and while there’s sorrow in these poems, it’s offset again and again by the deepest beauty.
Shrewd, frequently acerbic, lushly remembered, and fiercely imagined, the poems in Danny Lawless’s debut volume, The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With consider every subject from illness and infirmity to the vagaries of the poetry business. This first book (which seems a misnomer since these poems are wildly mature and sophisticated) embodies a vigorous and hungry imagination in pursuit of both the world and the word. The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With is that rare collaboration between intelligence and beauty. What a beginning it is.
In Daniel Lawless’s The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With, dépaysement—French for the feeling of being exiled, of being in a foreign place—assumes all the urgency of a traumatic spiritual condition. In poem after poem, Lawless’s quest for answers to the grief and peril of our present lives acts something like a strange attractor whirling together and holding in its vividly eclectic orbit all manner of unlikely correspondences—from the French Symbolists to Sting, from Hans Memling’s The Last Judgment to Clearwater segways, from Frank O’Hara to Uncle Fester, from Alzheimer’s to Esperanto, from frozen foods to natural selection. Lawless’s poems exult in panache, sprezzatura, tonal range, and risk—is there a more memorable title than “The Memory of My Memory is My Memory”? “What can I say?” he asks in the tenderly understated “Cancer,” ‘I was three. I thought / The lily pads would hold me up / All the way to the other side.” These poems, haunted as they are by the bottoming lawlessness of an absent God, carry the reader across with the necessity of their witness.
Daniel Lawless starts this riveting new collection with a poem titled "A" and is wise enough not to end it with a poem titled "Z." He knows life is not that neat and orderly—these poems spark on all cylinders with dizzying leaps of imagery, surprise, and insight. Exquisitely rendered, they keep us on our toes with their packed intensity, their dark, wicked humor, their duende, their talking in tongues—whatever you want to call it, Lawless has it. Have your paper and pens ready, for you, like me, may find yourself wanting to savor and repeat the many memorable lines from this book. "Listen to this," I say, reading these lines aloud to friends. And to you readers, I also say, "Listen to this."
Daniel Lawless is one of those rare and accessible poets with an innate ear for language and an eye for detail. His poems speak of grief and beauty, of tragedy and everyday epiphanies. Whether he is describing his Catholic background, his great grandmother’s backyard cremation, his brother’s mental breakdown, or his sister’s violent death, Lawless writes with emotional control, dark wit, and shimmering authenticity. The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With and Other Poems is a beautiful addition to American poetry.
Every poet who writes out of necessity has obsessions that motor the language, and at their best, chill the reader with feeling. Daniel Lawless’ obsession is the unfailing and unbearable weight of irredeemable loss: his siblings’ descent into schizophrenia, the early attempted suicide of a sister and its accompanying unshakable shame. It’s a shame that lurks behind so many of these poems and touches his childhood, sense of self, his family life, his religion and spirit. It’s the kind of powerlessness that’s impossible to heal, but he does the unflinching work of mourning: searching and beseeching with care the unknowable and unfixable.
Daniel Lawless is the founder and editor of the monthly online magazine Plume: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry, and the Plume anthologies, which appear in print annually. His poems have been published in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, FIELD, and The American Journal of Poetry, among many others. Lawless has lived and taught in France and the UK, and now resides in St. Petersburg, Florida. He writes critical essays and conducts author interviews. He received a grant from The Shifting Foundation in 2018. Louisville 1984-1974, is the title of his forthcoming book, comprising a number of prose poems and sketches drawing on his youthful experiences in that city.
Author Photo by Donna Lawless
Read a sample from this book
Almost, the therapist would say,
Almost. Dear Angie, a paid optimist.
And so again she’d slide the pen
And paper across the sunroom table. The first
At first held upside down for
A moment or simply dropped or flung
Aside. The second a thing mostly just stared at.
Again, the pen, the paper.
April, May, June, July—months of bitten, broken,
Aligned to probe an earhole with,
A crumpled morsel to be tasted or swallowed until
Aglow late one afternoon
Angie rushes out to greet us with what looks like
A toddler’s tepee slashed once in rage incarnate—the letter
“A” as adduced by my father after his third stroke.
Also per Klaus, the King of Chimpanzees, in his cage
At the International de Paris in 1937—held up for the crowd—
Étonnant! Neither of which was ever followed by
Another letter, let history record, let alone a word.
Alone—yes. Side by side, as I’ve placed them. Their scanned
And printed-out facsimiles
Affixed with thumbtacks to the whitewashed wall
Above my desk, the silence there
A silence my shadow-head leans into, listening.
As if someday an answer will emerge from it:
which the more pitiable.
Ah, no. The more les dieux absents. The more complete.
The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With
Was a cubit long and weighed half as much
As an average newborn U.S. baby.
Who sold it to her remains a matter of police conjecture,
A “collector,” most likely, or a friend in need
Of cash—no receipt ever surfaced.
What she did between the time she got it and the act
Adds little to the picture: coffee at McDonalds,
A few words exchanged with a balding man in an Army
Jacket outside the 7-Eleven on Broadway, no phone calls,
No letter. When my mother got the news
She was hanging sheets to dry on the backyard
Clothes—neighbors heard her
Cry two blocks over and thought a cat had died.
(Where, exactly, Father spent that afternoon: c.f.
Conjecture.) How Irish-pretty she was, pale, petite,
Kind, smart and slyly funny are duly noted now on
Her birthday, in photographs and little tales
That end in tears that end in silence: we the cage
And Rilke’s panther pacing there, a thousand bars
And beyond the bars no world but why.
At the midpoint
Of my life I didn’t feel I was in a submarine
Silently crossing the International Date Line,
Nor get the sense of cinder-stitched allées stretching out
Between shadowy walls of phosphorescent foliage.
And I definitely didn’t see myself as a granite statue
Beating itself into an idea with a granite hammer.
Maybe I heard birdsong, but no bird.
Or maybe I was the bird and my birdsong
Was this: cries from some childhood playground,
A dull dental work ache like a provincial orchestra
Tuning up in my veins. Chair scrapes
Followed by the roar of a gem-polishing machine.
The number 42, 42, 42, pronounced in Esperanto
As if a freezing prisoner in a courtyard
Was pleading for his life—
Kvardek du, kvardek du, kvardek du.
And, of course, the headwinds, howling in
From the North, starting to make a weathervane creak
Beneath a galloping horse that stands perfectly still.
All poems copyright © Daniel Lawless 2018
Review: Grace Cavalieri reviews The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With by Daniel Lawless for the Washington Independent Review of Books
From dark comes light, we all know that, and poetry makes life’s situations either better or worse, but never the same. And so, we read Lawless’ competing realities — about abuse, destruction, death, disregard — and we still come away remembering the book as bright spirited. “It’s all in the way you say it,” obviously, and Lawless has an effortless elegance with unstoppable energy coming from line arrangements, clever imagery, and rhythm that changes content. Enjambments are the true definition of craft and Lawless is at his best here. He turns on the fire and nobody gets burned, just a bit dazzled.
The poems are painful portraits and also an intricate look at the nests that hatch disenfranchisement; but they’re also about art and ideas, consequences, surprises, and a speaker who’s watching and telling — describing the soul he sees in each. Is he giving us something to believe in? No, not anything we can learn from life’s mean treatment — however we can believe in the transformation to art that makes everything (however sad and bad) undeniably good. Stretch your eyes and there’s an enlargement of what’s possible. These poems construct a different world from the one you may know and that’s exactly its poetry “capital.” These may be harsh subjects but there’s literary knowledge behind every word, and we marvel that good writing — really good writing — changes our perception of “harsh.” Finally, there’s something penitential in this book. That’s what draws us in; that’s the bright light; that’s what instructs us, and it’s why we read work that’s inimitable and courageous.