Way Elsewhere, by Julie Trimingham. The Lettered Streets Press, 2016. $12.95. paper.
Julie Trimingham’s Way Elsewhere, published by the up-and-coming Lettered Streets Press collective, is one of the more hard-to-peg reads of the year, a book that defies genre expectations and renders conventional literary distinctions almost meaningless. And as is almost always true about hard-to-peg books, for the consumer of Way Elsewhere, this makes for an engaging reading experience. According to an author’s note, the project started as posts for a fictional travel blog; yet what it became over months of shaping and editing is a volume of peripatetic and plot-linked prose poetry, one that strives to evoke as many disparate and unlike locations as could be reasonably—or perhaps unreasonably—visited by one person over the course of a young life: Alberta, Newfoundland, Arizona, Hawaii, the Himalayas, Cape Horn, Italy, Cuba, and a few other places that are trickier to ascertain, including one fantasy gathering: the Annual International Conference on Fog.
The fictional aspect of the original material comes through clearly in certain of the poems, such as the one about the conference with the ludicrous name as well as a few others that feature protagonists different from the first-person speaker who carries most of the book. But for the most part, Way Elsewhere is as personally revealing and emotionally honest as any book of autobiography. This is not to say that the life story of the historical Julie Trimingham is on naked display in the pages of the collection—I know nothing of the facts of that life—but that at the center of Way Elsewhere is a singular, brooding consciousness, a specific “I” that remains consistent from poem to poem. This “I” may be only one aspect of Trimingham herself or a fictionalized version of such, but it holds from poem to poem, a palpable identity, one that admits to her own suffering and her own embarrassments, one that resonates with the pain of a crucially broken heart.
If there is an overarching plot to the various adventures embedded in the poems of Way Elsewhere, it would be that: an ongoing revelation of the speaker’s separateness from the rest of humankind and her ongoing investigation of her own past through memories of at least one, if not several, romantic relationships gone mystifyingly sour. “I am trying to chart myself as an astronomer does,” the speaker explains in “The Stars in Arizona,” and this does indeed seem to be the modus operandi of her book-length agenda. The speaker’s journeys to all the various and assorted destinations finally seem designed to put her past and herself under fierce, almost clinical, scrutiny; to hold her own suffering up in comparison to that of others and through that effort to win a modicum of self-understanding. This is an effort which, as the reader might expect, ends up being only incompletely successful.
Given her broken heart, it is not surprising to find that in several of the poems the speaker finds herself noticing in the places she visits only what is isolated, what is dark, what is hurting, what is toxic. “You have to contend with them, the dead,” she thinks to herself during a visit to a coal mine in “Underground.” In the following poem, “On the Coal Train,” she considers the ultimate destinations of all the mined coal, what it will be used for, what troubles it will bring: “The rain, when it comes, will be poison.” Her contemplation of a bee hive in “The Queen Must Die” is dominated by the fact that she has just crushed the queen bee beneath her shoe. “Weeks later,” she predicts, “I will know that the bees are gone before I even look. A feeling of stillness, a quiet where there should be humming. The hive is empty; the colony has absconded.” This focus on trouble, on pain, on loss, is perhaps most dire in the aptly titled “My Delirium,” a poem in which the feverishly ill speaker describes her state of mind: “I can’t sleep, thinking about drought and desperation, storms and refugees, all the strife a hot world would bring. I lie in bed, and it feels like shards of glass have replaced the blood in my veins. I can’t breathe.”
But lest you think the speaker has simply given into bludgeoning despair, rest assured that the emotional tenor of the book is not hopelessness so much as resignation to struggle, a willingness to admit to and actively ruminate about the losses she has suffered, rather than, say, throw herself into the sea. This is most obvious in the poem “The End of the World,” set aboard a cruise ship that has sailed past Cape Horn and churns on toward an isolated island to the south, “a place of ferocious winds and dead sailors.” A truly distraught teenager, one wallowing in suicidal despair due to a recent romantic setback, reveals her trouble to the speaker. Looking at the frigid ocean water, the teen says, “I should throw myself over.” Naturally, the speaker tries to talk her out of it, but against the speaker’s arguments, the teen complains fiercely, “The world is ending.” The speaker’s reply is as knife certain, and revealing, as it is effective. “It always is,” she tells the teen.
The same dark, knowing fatalism that underlies her response to the teen in “The End of the Word” governs her perceptions most of the other poems. But toward the end of the collection there is noticeable turn, a plot twist if you will, with the speaker’s responses seeming less hopeless than antagonistic, for lack of a better word. Having charted herself, laid bare her own dark suffering and that of others, she is in a mood to finally move on. “I have had enough of want,” she declares at the end of “The Cock’s Egg.” This theme carries over, and is embraced even more overtly, in the concluding poem “La Milagrosa.” In the poem, the speaker tours a cemetery in Havana and notices a striking figure carved on a gravestone: a woman holding a baby. Consulting her guidebook, she learns that the figure indicates that “a woman dies in childbirth, an infant with her.” Reading on, she learns of the legend of La Milagrosa, who when her coffin was opened thirteen years after her death was found to be miraculously whole and smooth-skinned, as was her baby. Milagrosa’s burial site became a pilgrimage site, a sacred location. The speaker seems emboldened, even transformed, by Milagrosa’s legendary triumph over death. She leaves the cemetery emotionally braced, able at least to really focus on the living city around her, no longer interested in resurrecting stories out of her own troubled past or pasts of others. Instead, all she wants to look at, all she wants to see, is the “Here! & now.”
John Vanderslice teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. His fiction, poetry, essays, and one-act plays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. His linked story collection, Island Fog (Lavender Ink) was named by the Library Journal as one of the Top 15 Indie Fiction Titles of 2014.