Liminal Womanhood: A Review of Rebecca Lehmann’s Ringer by Amy Dotson

Ringer, the winner of the 2018 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, is Rebecca Lehmann’s second book of poetry. Her first, Between the Crackups, was published in 2011. Her poems have been published in Tin House, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Fence, Boston Review, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, where she teaches English.

            Ringer is divided into three parts, with one poem before part one. Here, Lehmann starts from the beginning. The very beginning. “Natural History” prefaces the book with a creation story, one that brings life out of darkness with light that “hooks a claw on the horizon, pulls itself / into view.” The poem is the narrative of life that is also the narrative of Western culture and includes “a paper about George Washington, complete with colored / pencil illustrations of his many sets of false teeth.” The poem ends with a longing for a tale of a flashlight, and we are catapulted into the first part.

            In the titular “Ringer,” we are given a baby and his mother, and they feel like the only people in the universe who matter. They move through their neighborhood, receiving approving nods from the neighbors and the clouds as the mother strolls with the infant dressed up in a “snowsuit that made him look like a bear,” defining themselves as inhabitants of this world, occupants of space. However, all of this approval feels tertiary to the focal point—the mother as she lies on the rug listening to Joni Mitchell while her son plays on his mat—the two being close together in the privacy of their own house. A peaceful, serene symbiosis between mother and child, with only inklings of the outside world.

            This rest of part one is peace interrupted—by a morning, which “chokeholded the roadside” in “Morning Lasso”; an imposing math professor in “Corker”; “Make America Great Again hats / stacked in a red pyramid on the souvenir cart outside security”; and rent, bills, and groceries in “Corker.” The serene bubble is no longer. The illusion of peace is shattered. Our mother and child must exist in a chaotic world, and the speaker is concerned she is witnessing “the decline of America.” We see the daily life of an American woman that seems fairly typical, but is, in many ways, heartbreaking.

            Though the book is prefaced by a creation narrative, it itself is not one. In fact, it defies the concept of the grand narrative. Part one is a strong and careful meditation on specific moments experienced through the eyes of women. It is, at times, a philosophical undertaking—what does it mean to be a woman right now in America? In one of the most chilling poems in the book, the creation narrative, so full of half-truths, is subverted with its own imagery. “Snakes in the Dark” displays a calm wit: “Oh sure the trees / are full of snakes, / that cover the knotty bark / of their trunks. / Ignore that.” The narrator no longer has use for these kinds of stories. A story of a man who built an airplane in his basement, (including the tasteful use of the phrase “cellar doors,”) is ended with the chilling line, on its own, as punctuation: “Not even I believe that.” Lehmann also addresses violence against women in “Locker Room Talk” and displays disdain for the narratives built around men in “Man,” whose voice has a fiery energy and a wicked bite: “O lost poem / of the quintessential sea adventure! O, shut man’s mouth.”

            Part two is as suspicious of nature as much as it finds beauty within in it. Lines like “Somewhere / right now, a dolphin is raping another dolphin” are followed by lines like “On shore, a child in a swim diaper traces / a heart in the sand with her fingers. / She is dreaming of sliced mangoes.” These juxtapositions ebb and flow, especially in “Epithalamion,” which is all about the back-and-forth of moving through everyday life as different creatures: “When I was Lake Michigan, I dreamed I’d marry / a sea lamprey. When I was a sea lamprey, / I dreamed I’d marry the side of a trout / darting through algae.” Part two can occasionally spend too long in abstract meditations of the natural world, but it comes back with the concrete and nostalgic images in “Elegy for Almost,” when the speaker, at a daycare, recalls herself as a seventeen year old, driving stoned “around the Wisconsin countryside, I never / knew you. I ping-ponged over the yellow / line, singing along to Cohen’s Hallelujah, / my guidance counselor’s son waving his tattooed arm out the passenger window.” The poignant and visceral moments like these ground the reader in real, lived experience that balances out the meditations on nature.

            Part three is feral and furious, placing poems like “Alternative Facts,” a cynical, snarky, and callously funny mockery of the Trump presidency: “The president / is the least misogynist person there is. / You’re going to have great relations, / the best relations, the most / consensual” in close proximity of “Fever,” which brings us back to the mother/child relationship and intimate family life. It unleashes feminist ferocity with poems like “Every Woman Adores a Fascist:” “I will come for you like a feral dog in the night, / sniffing your stiff pecker, sniffing the collar.” This final section combines the commentary on domesticity and womanhood present in part one with the natural images of part two in a way that is angry, witty, and incredibly fun to read. “Time Traveler” seemingly cements the overall tone of the book with the lines, “No safe zone / exists in the factory of time, no home base, / no olly-olly-oxen-free.”

            Ringer is sensual and bucolic, fantastical and grimy, violently aware of its place in time. Lehmann plays with contradictions, of domesticity and wildness, nature and human constructs, and refuses to accept the status quo, existing in the strange liminal space where modern women live. At times it is philosophical, dealing purely in the abstract, and at other times, it is down-to-earth in daycares and college classrooms. The book addresses what it means for a woman to live in the era of Trump, making it not only a highly engaging read, but a necessary one. Rebecca Lehmann’s Ringer can be found on Amazon for $15.19 USD. To read Lehmann's poetry in a previous issue of Miracle Monocle, click here.

AMY DOTSON is a creative nonfiction editor of Miracle Monocle