» Book Review

Review: The Clearing by Allison Adair

Milkweed Editions, 2020

Hardcover, $22.00, 88 pages


The Clearing


Allison Adair’s debut collection, The Clearing, is a tumble down a familiar hillside that leaves the reader giggling or stuck in a blackberry bush. It is the sting of antiseptic on a hundred bramble scratches, but it is also the kiss on a forehead covered in bandages. The Clearing is painful at times, since it is a catalog of victimhood, loss, and domestic violence—desperate circumstance that sometimes ends in tragedy.


“Mother of 2 Stabbed to Death in Silverton” begins, “The woman was overheard in the town hall saying she was afraid / to do it, once and for all, that he would, like he’s said, and he did.” Adair shows little interest in overly intellectualizing sentiments. Instead, the sharp truth—like a late-night phone call—is often delivered deadpan, and the poetics do not suffer in the least. In fact, the plainspoken portrayal of surgically precise metaphors either jars the reader or leaves them misty-eyed. This poem ends on the neighbor’s front porch, “It was an accident, he said, I never meant it. They stood there still / as newsprint.”


I fear I am fixating on the grotesque, perhaps because it is captured so extraordinarily, but in truth the poetic landscapes found in The Clearing are equally delightful—the voices often nurturing and celebratory, even when wrestling with fear and darkness. In “City Life,” the narrator and her daughter are learning to live in a city full of rats: “For her, death / is the longest nap imaginable, / maybe four hours. But we always wake / at the end.” And no matter where Adair leads us—toward a mining disaster, a recurring dream, or a historical reenactment—there will likely be animals there to keep us unnerved or entertained. “I thought I knew the sound of darkness, / the slow leather collapse of a bat’s wing / folding into itself, the swollen fucking of a cloud / of them wrestling for space on the cave’s drapery.” In Adair’s world, the creatures morph continually, and the lines are winding and tourniquet tight.  “A ruined animal will drag itself miles only to become / a desiccated hutch, burrow of maggots, coyote trough.”


Adair’s phrases are rural incantations that swirl in the throat like heavy smoke, and each image is refreshing as a gulp from the backyard spigot—worth returning to again and again. And beneath each poem lies a meticulous sonic foundation. There is a rhythmic precision, too, that shifts in accordance with the whims of the poet. The reader is aware of their own slow breathing, for example, when an animal is trapped or desperate. At other moments, the rhythm almost mirrors the image, such as in the closing of “Gettysburg”: “The caterpillar inches along, lost / in its sad accordion hymn.” And while there are deeply personal poems in this collection, Adair is as—if not more—interested in writing about historical events and rural places, such as “Silverton, ”a town in Colorado with no more than seven hundred residents. These poems are not unlike blue whales with hearts as big as rental cars. Winner of the 2020 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, The Clearing is a light show all its own, pungent and beautiful as a prairie fire. It is a collection one shouldn’t risk lending out, if they ever want to see it again.


Collin Callahan

Collin Callahan was born in Illinois. His poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Slice Magazine, Cream City Review, Hobart, Carve Magazine, Seneca Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. Collin holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas and is currently a PhD student in creative writing at Florida State University.