Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review of Rhett Iseman Trull's "The Real Warnings"

The Real Warnings, by Rhett Iseman Trull
Anhinga Press, 2008, 84 pages, $15
ISBN 9781934695111

I want Rhett Iseman Trull’s book of poems The Real Warnings to have the subtitle “Taking Chances Because What Else Is There” because that is the message of these poems. Presented as one part apology, one part tribute to love and parenting, and all parts acknowledgement of the difficulty of choosing to take risks and the impossibility of choosing not to, The Real Warnings provides vital testimony to the importance of fortitude, persistence, and faith in humanity and oneself.

The opening poem (one of the best) of the collection presents this perspective summarily. The speaker “warns” her parents, “You will burn yourselves on me,” and admonishes “Forget about sleeping / I’ll dominate the prayers you keep sending up . . . . / For every greeting card poem, I will write four / to hurt you. Some will be true.” But she advises prophetically, “You will take one look at that new life screaming / into the world, and open your arms.” As a new parent, myself, I have no difficulty identifying with this course of emotions.

“The Last Good Dream” presents another image of our willingness to take risks, this time in regards to love,
. . . we give
with unthinned hearts, little knowing
how even if banked by the best words

and buoyed by honesty, love can fail.
Or maybe we do know
and unharbor ourselves anyway.
And “Introducing My Brother in the Role of Clark Kent” puts a more specific face on what we’re willing to do for love and how even as we recognize the cost it has exacted from us, we know we would do it again: “he’s calculated that he’s spent / seventy-one-point-two percent of the last three years in her / presence, mostly happy, unwilling to trade a day of it.” One poem after another provides such portraits of persistence despite the warnings and even knowledge of the dangers involved: “The Boy in the Full-Length Women’s Fur Coat” “thinks of her, // the girl he keeps loving / and losing;” the speaker in “Everything from That Point On” says, “I loved you most in that moment, knowing // even as I slipped my arm up the back of your shirt, hooking us // together, that you were about to cut me loose;” and “Hanna” in “Study of Motion” says, “Pursue Joy Now” and moves “to San Francisco” to “do what she loves.”

No naïve romantic, however, the speaker of these poems knows that in pursuit of joy there will be frustration, failure, even desperation, and she knows the appeal of that desperation, that “what feels like the end is the end / only if you pull the trigger” (“The Ice Is Our Only Light”). She knows that along the way the frequently unsatisfying nature of life will lead us to almost unimaginable acts to feel again just the possibility of joy, as in “The House of Pain” where she remarks, “As you leave, what begins to haunt you / is not the blisters that bangle your wrist like opals. / It is not the awful things he did to you / but the yes that you roared as you let him.” Thus, these usually hopeful poems are at times painful, at times heartwrenchingly so, as in the best of them all, “The End of the Hour:”
. . . The hour’s over.
Today’s final question: not why
the scars but where? Where else
did you do that?
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . I
start to remove my blouse, to offer
a look at the marks I scored
that no one’s ever seen. For a moment
I feel human, all masks put away. I will show
her all of it, ugliness I’ve covered until now, but
That’s enough, she scolds, jotting a furious
phrase in her notes before opening the cabinet
with her heel and storing, again, my file.
. . . . . . . . . .
Don’t ask, I think, if you don’t want to know.
but I say, I’m sorry, sorry familiar
as breath, Sorry, sent out the door half-

But what matters most to the anti-nihilist, the existentialist who speaks these poems is the refusal to give up. So, in “Counting Miracles” we hear from a mental hospital resident:
We’ve learned a thing or two
about miracles for the common man,
. . . a nest of robins about to hatch;
fast cars on the highway, going somewhere;
in the sky, webs of lightning . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
The stars know the danger
of even a bingo-paced Wednesday and light
themselves every night in celebration
of the simple fact of our survival.
And in “The Night before Depakote,” we’re told simply, “It’s enough that we live.” And in “Last Word,” we hear perhaps most clearly from the poet herself the proclamation, “I don’t really want to be a concrete / signature. I want to grow old choosing ink over blood / with which, on the flank of the world, I’ll set my brand.” And, then, since the “last word” is really just the last word in this book-length struggle for hope, we read in the final three poems of the rewards for this victory over despair: “The streets of my heart while sun-licked, well-trafficked, amazed, / hosted a previous traveler or two, but none until you / paused to point out beauty I missed” (“The Streets of My Heart”); “Jeff and I, for the better / part of a year, have been trying to start / a life inside me” (“Sonogram on the Way to Earth”); and “Maybe // we’ll bring into this world five children and ruin / every one” (“Heart by Heart the House”). Such hopeful planning should be the final breath of every difficult day.


  1. I have this book, I've read it, and think it's absolutely brilliant. I found it to be a wonderfully fearless collection and it's one of the best poetry books on my shelf.

  2. I want to applaud the review. Enough said.