The Need – Phillips

It was a third-year university course in metaphysics that introduced me to the theory of possible worlds. Immediately I was absorbed by the storytelling potential of this concept. Books and films which can effectively incorporate a parallel universe into their plots seem to persistently captivate audiences. A recent Netflix show, The Society, reinvigorates the idea (at least presumably, in the first season). The message from literature and film, however, is that finding an alternate universe rarely leads to positive results.

The Need, by Helen Phillips, strategically uses a parallel universe to tell her story of Molly, a paleobotanist who is haunted by its negative consequences. The science fiction aspect of this story is the part that glues the reader to its pages and gives the novel its heart-pounding quality.

Like some of the best science fiction, however, it is the mundane, human aspects of the novel that ultimately bless the story with its resonance and beauty.

The Need spends an extraordinary amount of time describing the dull work of a mother: putting apple sauce in bowls, forgetting a diaper and cleaning poop off the floor, remembering to feed one’s child at least two prunes a day, breastfeeding when the baby is indifferent, etc. etc. Phillip’s brilliance lies in her ability to make these moments of drudgery feel precious. These are the moments that build a life. We have historically tried to avoid them through childcare and technology, but they are still there.

The terror of this book comes from the persistent question that remains long after Phillips’s story is finished: is there a world where my children are no longer my children? Is there a world where I am no longer a mother?

The Need by Helen Phillips

Fiction – Simon and Schuster – 2019

Tap Out – Kunz

When teaching poetry, I often notice students’ interest in writing long, winding narrative poems. I teach a variety of forms, but ultimately allow them creative freedom when composing their own poem. Inevitably, the majority choose a form of their own invention, a lengthy narrative structure where they breathlessly describe a breakup, a childhood memory, or a trauma of some kind. They want to tell their stories, and they seem to find solace in this malleable structure.

I read these poems with interest. After all, it is a common experience to have memories that won’t stay put in a single neat, delineated description, experiences that seep into the rest of our lives, coloring every experience and changing our perspectives.

Edgar Kunz, in his recent poetry collection, Tap Out, has a similar eagerness for telling his story, letting the narrative seep slowly from one poem to the next, repeating characters, events, and images. The strength of this method is that it allows Kunz to emphasize the memories which provide a sort of structure to his life. For example, a childhood friend, Daryl, shoots himself, and this memory reverberates throughout the entire collection. Sometimes Daryl is simply, “Mikes brother Daryl,” other times he is a loudmouthed kid trying to impress girls, bragging about girls. But this memory, “The way your brother Daryl took himself out of the world,” is the vital cord to these other memories of this character.

There are some weaknesses in this collection. Poems like “Dry Season,” patch past experiences with the narrator’s current travels and the pastoral elk watching in Colorado. The poem is trying to tell us a story, but it is lost in the patchwork of its own images.

Kunz’s overall vision of these poems emphasize the tragedy belonging to place, to one’s origins, of regional experiences that ring out beyond their seemingly humble roots. The poems sing with clarity.

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner Books and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Tap Out by Edgar Kunz

Poetry – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner Books – Publication date 5 March 2019