The poems in Joanna Rawson’s recent collection, Unrest, have the quality of things scrawled in the harsh fluorescent light of insomnia. The lines scurry in jagged lengths, infesting the broad pages with buzzing images of immigrants suffocating in a boxcar, feverish babies, a suicide bomber, and war. This pervasive sleepless quality doesn’t preclude craft, though: each line is balanced, as is the book, despite its overwhelming intimacy of terror.
Rawson, a former journalist, used interviews as some of the material for the fifteen poems in the book. The poems based on real events are stark but not trite, woven of fragments of stories and shards of imagery. “Requiescat” is constructed of those elements, but an elevated degree of hope occurs when a cellist continues playing long after the audience is annihilated. The cellist returns day after day, until suddenly “We’re talking now about years into the terror.” After twenty-two performances, “as if to oppose utter mortalness itself, he lay down in the heat’s siege/sawing at the animal guts of that instrument./By then no one else could hear it.” Here, the cellist’s refusal to allow mortal silence to fall over the rubble is tragic and lovely.
The poems offer few other moments of respite, and fear is alternately elicited through treatments of violence and war, and sick children and domestic unease. A sole moment of near-serenity occurs in “Return Trip by Night”:
Low-slung rain reddened at dawn and made of the whole air a wild vow.
Hush. It was exactly then—
then that the puncture wounds we’d put for so long into wherever of ourselves was left started to green at the edges, turn into history and heal.
The shaking eases up by late autumn, and then the pallor, as the blue asters open.
In this poem, tragedy retreats in a shadow, allowing quiet, sleep. Yet the scars of trauma and tendency toward restlessness are still evident, and when the neighbors break bottles in the alley, “the noise is a fury.”