Carrie Oeding, If I Could Give You a Line, University of Akron Press, 2023

Reviewed by Angie Mazakis

[Review Guidelines]



In a figure drawing class I attended, the instructor said that the line shows where the figure begins and where the rest of the world ends. After I read Carrie Oeding's book, If I Could Give You a Line, winner of the 2021 Akron Prize, I wanted to draw a line around its body of ideas, eschew the rest of the world outside the line, and live inside the perspective of the book's both sharp and inventive mind. Among the many visual artists Oeding refers to in the book is abstract artist Cy Twombly in the opening poem "Will You Line Up the Children?" Twombly once said, "Every line is the actual experience with its own unique story," and Oeding's book gives us the various experiences of the line in all its iterations and possibilities—a visual line, a line of poetry, a line of people, lines of inquiry, physical lines (tightropes, skirt slits, pregnancy sticks, "cracks to break your mother's back"), conceptual lines, implied lines ("the willingness of soft grasses," a line of breath, a toll booth), timelines (years and years of rows), lifelines; the reader experiences a panoply of perspectives on "the line." This focus on the line through poetry is self-referential, because, as James Longenbach acknowledged, the line is elemental; the "…line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry."

Twombly's intuitive and abstract concept of the line is reflected in these poems. Of the visual line in painting, Twombly said, "It's like a nervous system. It's not described, it's happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning." Though I don't believe that this sentiment from Twombly was meant to serve as a guidepost for the book, it seems emblematic of the book's sensibilities. In several of the poems, Oeding writes about soft and hard lines ("The line is always hard, even soft lines," and in another poem, "Someone feels soft and hard and not / close" the title of which is "Hard and Soft Materials Used to Make Distance"), and many times in the book the beginning or end of a "line" is meant to be imperceptible—inferred or let go.

The end of the first section of "The Making of Things" seems to embody Twombly's idea of the line as "the actual experience": "No. Dear poems, you always think first in terms of departure," it reproaches (itself), as it approaches its own end, "I am coming to you. I am not going away!" The speaker reminds the poem not to take off without them—the experience of the poem (wherever it goes) ascendent to the written poem being "an" experience. The speaker is in the poem, chasing it down, not "described, [but] happening," as Twombly said.

In the opening poem, Oeding writes, "That year all the words would fall into my lines. Even chair for you to sit down while my line kept going." So much is happening in these two lines. We watch an image of words falling into a line as we're reading the line. Then one of the words falls out of line to become literal and arrest us while the speaker's lines continue, onto which we hang. This line and several others in the book seem to materialize Twombly's idea that "the feeling is going on with the task," as the atmospheric coalesces with the literal. This appears again in "The Making of Things," when the speaker addresses the reader. "When you are making a line, you are no longer waiting [in line]. When you are no / longer waiting, you are waving. You made it!" The speaker refers to literal lines—ones we wait in, then the line itself moves out of line and "arrives"—"You made it!" moving into both the conceptual and literal at once—having literally arrived at a conceptual place—the idea and the thing itself. "Would you please hold this note?" the speaker later asks, making the reader think about holding an instrumental note, allowing it to reverberate, while imagining literally holding a note in one's hands. The lines in the poems themselves leak out into reality, are uncontained—"Inside this sentence, she is already starting to read," a later poem discloses about the speaker's daughter, using the line we are reading as a marker of time as the record of a literal event. Throughout the book, Oeding attempts to blur the line between conceptual and real, between visual art and written art, the visual line and the written line, which mirrors Twombly who, in his own words, "never really separated painting and literature." This is done most brilliantly when the speaker states, "I drew a line that you couldn't have. Here." Later the speaker says, "Or was it that I had a problem, and I drew a line. / Or was it that I drew a line and then had a problem." The reader moves from understanding this line as a literally drawn line to realizing that the speaker is referring to the idiom "to draw a line" as the speaker reinforces a boundary that was being communicated from the start ("a line that you couldn't have").

In "Why Describe a Moment When," the reader sees a moving mass, maybe a line, maybe not: "This moves like how brightness moves"—a propelling forward, not in a line, but in superfluity, which… from a cosmic view is a line. Again, this idea appears in "Impossible Holds Successfully Held": "I wasn't / the wind, but I felt across landscapes." It implies a borderlessness within borders like the paradox of "infinity rooms" (such as Yayoi Kusama's, which are referenced in the poem "Yelling at Selfies").

Another artist Oeding mentions is Margaret Kilgallen, when she writes, "See how Margaret Kilgallen's work, they said, looks like a commercial sign, manufactured. But when you come close, you can see the waver, the hand." This is the singular reference to Kilgallen in the book, but her spirit continues through the representations of motherhood and art throughout the book. There are few words attributed to Kilgallen, who died young at 33, but her most quoted is about the line: "I will never be able to make it straight," she said. "You can always see the line waver, and I think that's where the beauty is." If the line separates figure and world, it also leads us to consider where the line between mother and child begins and ends. Kilgallen was central to the Mission School movement of the 1990s and 2000s and, diagnosed with cancer while pregnant, she ignored symptoms in her own body and focused on childbirth. She died shortly after giving birth and was said to only open her eyes in hospice for her newborn daughter. Her story seems emblematic to this book that examines the line and motherhood at once; her idea of beauty in the waver of the line seems as though it can be beautifully and achingly attributed to the line between mother and child, which was most poignantly illustrated in her own life.

Oeding's poem that most explicitly examines motherhood is the poem, "Anytime You Want You Can See Mothers Wiping," which illuminates the sacrificial and meticulous concern in the role of motherhood. "…there is a mother next to a garbage can, wiping it / before her child throws something away. One is wiping a child's face / before it is dirty. One wipes everything but memory." With each act of wiping, the mothers in the poem seem to be wiping away the line between mother and child, pouring themselves into the work of mothering, pouring themselves into the child. "Children, fall into me," says the speaker of the opening poem. There are implications throughout the book that though "the body can move to fit another body inside," ("When I Am Not Repeating My Name…") the world can't move to make room for mothers and their reality: "it's / both a place no one would want to live in and a place you think everyone / privileges that's a lot of mom to fit in the room every day." This feminist assertion appears elsewhere in the book, for example, in the line "A mark, a division, a line. A line. An obvious he" ("The Making of Things"). The line is "obvious" as a line and as male. It is definite, concrete, accounted for—seen. In "When I am Not Repeating…" the speaker contests the claim made by others that she hasn't been writing because she's had a baby, countering that she's "never written more" and offers the horrifying fact that her toddler has been catcalled. The word "mothering" is compared to "Mary's painted downward smile" in the "permanent collections," an image that reflects the disposition of our social climate toward "mothering," and which, of course, hinges on one drawn line ("A Bunch of Different Parts…").

My favorite moments in this book are the implied lines. For example, the last line of "I Would Give You a Drawn Line" (which, incidentally, seems to answer the title of the book, creating its own implied line between titles), "Dear Reader, I don't want to share you with anyone" is a direct line from speaker to reader. In "The Making of Things," another feminist assertion appears, as a "tourist explained to his girlfriend how to improve the architecture." His girlfriend, however, seems inured to the mansplaining: "His girlfriend not listening like a bucket of fresh ice." I love how this image reveals her resolve, but also implies an inevitable line, makes us imagine the ice melting, eventually, into a line…