A review of 'Each Tree Could Hold a Noose or a House’
I first read Ru Puro’s poetry on a cold concrete bench in my hometown, holding in my elbows to leave room for those around me. At the time, Puro’s meditations on the severity and occasional beauty of the manufactured modern landscape seemed to mirror my crowded, colorless surroundings, while their more personal poems echoed my discomfort at taking up space on the bench. In fact, discomfort is a frequent theme of Puro’s poetry, which often compellingly expresses how fraught it can be to move through the world. Each Tree Could Hold a Noose or a House is thus a gift for every “queer weirdo” — as Puro describes themself — for those who have felt alienated from their skin, who keep their elbows close at all times, who have felt stunned upon waking up in their bodies or who have, as Puro writes, “a hard time being awake” at all.
Ru Puro is a social worker living in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of two chapbooks, elegy with pilot light (Argos Books, 2017) and The Winter Palace (dancing girl press, 2015). Each Tree Could Hold a Noose or a House, released in October 2018 after winning the New Issues Poetry Prize, is their full-length debut. Although Each Tree is remarkably coherent as a collection, it spans a range of topics, including sexual violence, postcolonial trauma, racial inequalities, and the struggles of working-class America. It is clearly important for Puro to consider the stories that they are themself unable to tell (or that may have never been told), expressed as a series of unanswered questions in “How It Goes”:
Who never recovered, who died of sadness, unrecognized, died in the Middle
Passage, whose work stolen, who never got caught? Which mayor snipped a ribbon,
which runner broke another, which door bricked over & bedroom sealed off, which
dancer broker her ankle her first solo? (33)
Elsewhere in Each Tree, Puro uses their own experiences as the impetus for addressing larger social issues. Many poems reflect on recovery after trauma or chronic illness, and particularly on Puro’s history of bulimia, linking personal histories of suffering and survival to experiences that are widely shared. Thus Puro shifts from autobiography to an empathetic “we” in “Bare Life,” which draws its title from Giorgio Agamben:
How to describe a year of static, a decade in sheets? I stood for a long
time by the window deciding: get dressed or jump. Eventually, I got
dressed. The day churned on. Life’s like that. We try to get dressed,
and do not speak of our trial later, when we are dressed and have
sailed grinning in. We wear the smartest clothes we can. (29)
Gender is also central to this collection and is often connected to abuse and illness. For instance, Puro frequently considers their eating disorder in the context of their gender identity and experiences as a queer person:
how does the desire to escape tie into being queer, e.g. being taught my basic perceptions & desires were wrong? (83)
What I did to my temples, my collarbones
was a furious fixing. A way to undaughter. (123)
In “High Intensity Interval Training,” Puro addresses both violence toward women and the shortcomings of “women” as a category, revealing that:
For years, I thought I was only parts of a girl, but it wasn’t that hard, I know,
I know because I walk around in my body. It wasn’t hard. I can stare up
at my body feigning moans in the mirror & pray for a late checkout. (36)
It is notable that Each Tree was recently awarded the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry, an honor that does not accurately reflect Puro’s identity and that perhaps testifies to this collection’s ability to resonate with a variety of experiences.
Many reviews of this astonishing debut have stressed the complexity, and even opacity, of Puro’s style. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Stephanie Burt observed that some poems are “nearly baroque in their deep-delving obscurity,” while Rob McLennan praised Puro’s “thick, and impossible” writing. Indeed, a line in “Wheat Fields with Reaper & Unfinished Letter” could also function as a statement about Puro’s poetics:
The men want our secrets to crack
as gulls eat clams: by dropping them from high. (26)
Like a fragile bivalve, Each Tree contains opalescence as well as extreme vulnerability, and scrutiny of its constituent parts risks overlooking the integrity of the whole.
This skepticism about definitive, authoritative claims also surfaces in the wry imperatives of “Prescription”:
If surge, puddle of milk. If shadow,
puddle of gasoline. If gender, shadow hurtling
overhead. If gender, dream in a language
you don’t know. If gender, swim
parallel to shore. (16)
The remedies offered here — some tongue-in-cheek, some worth noting for later use — raise important theoretical questions about the legitimacy of different forms of healing and knowledge. Specifically, they evoke a very long history in which “folk” and “traditional” knowledge has been denigrated and often gendered (e.g. as “old wives’ tales”), while institutionalized medicine has drifted increasingly toward objectifying patients and neglecting the personal factors affecting how diseases develop. Like other poems in this collection, “Prescription” also speaks to the enormity of the decision to get better, given that treatment is often harsher than the disease and requires ongoing commitment: “If itch, reorganize the sky. … If walk, keep walking.” (17)
These threads of disidentification with the body and dissatisfaction with the medical establishment persist in the subsequent series of elegies, such as “elegy with trillium & medical records”:
kept finding this skin
that wasn’t mine
me. doctors kept
feeding it, drawing
charts of how
it grew. (64)
The rich and often disquieting imagery of the elegies then gives way to agitated metacommentary in “Woman crying in a gallery,” a long poem inspired by the No Wave Performance Task Force’s 2015 protest in honor of Ana Mendieta, which took place at the Dia:Beacon Carl Andre retrospective and included loud, collective crying. While the elegies unfold in short, spare, and highly controlled lines, this poem explodes across the page, oscillating between provocative questions and unsettling vignettes. Among these are necessary reflections on Puro’s own social privilege (“is correlating the murder of a brown person with my white lived experience problematic to the point that this poem is irrevocably flawed?”), lapses into doubt and self-deprecation (“to what extent was I inventing an invisible friend because I was lonely?”), and moments of assertive clarity (“if I had gone to prom or college instead of hospitals, if I’d had family or mentors, would I have become a queer poet?”) (83–84). The poem ends without any final judgments, and its unanswered questions suggest an alternative to the conventional understanding of recovery (and, indeed, of transition) as a steady process with a definite endpoint. Instead, Puro depicts healing as an ongoing negotiation among past, present, and hypothetical realities as the narrator contemplates what is, what could have been, and what might still be.
In “Shift Work,” the masterful final section of Each Tree, the self-inquiry of poems like “Woman crying” flowers into narratives of hard survival. Again, Puro frames recovery not as a triumphal return to health, an idealized “getting well,” but as an unending series of decisions to “get better.” The titular poem recalls “Bare Life,” as the narrator describes the first stages of choosing “to join the living”:
I got better at taking the garbage out
& making less. At the idea
of getting better. (93)
Here, Puro portrays “joining the living” as a performance consisting of small, everyday actions, which are often incongruous with the narrator’s internal state:
I thought of the jobs I thought I’d do.
The job I did. Got up,
went to work. Aligned my boots so
careful on the platform.
Ate the last persimmon.
Went dark inside. (93)
This discordance between mundane actions and private suffering comes to a head in “Service Industry,” a haunting portrayal of grief under late capitalism. As the narrator bartends and expresses condolences via a mobile app, their deep weariness is both obvious and familiar:
Rich boys wait for me to pour; I wait til
I can flip their chairs & sit. My dead friends all
have hands like horses & perfect teeth
I Paypal flower money for the latest hearse
on my phone. Cellophane tap first cigarette out, flip,
ease back in. The last I’ll smoke.
In this pack. (105)
Amid these accounts of persistence and mourning, Puro continues to offer vivid commentaries on gender identity and expression. Having compared gender to an ineffectual, burdensome “skirt of wet rocks” in “Top 40” (89), they present a measured account of adaptation and survival in “Take Your Places, Ladies”:
My face is this object / I carry around everywhere I go
and I’m starting to not mind this. / How much of me is not
a man. / How weak is any part of a woman
trying to speak. (119)
Each Tree’s final poem, “Murmur in the Inventory,” is an outstanding reflection on the iterative nature of traumatic memories and the guilt of recovering while others remain ill. Through chantlike repeated phrases like “What happened was,” this poem builds to a passage that evokes the end of a poetry reading:
Here’s where I say something
comforting so you can go home
without feeling sad. Again. There’s pink light
on the mountains. (126)
Similarly, Puro’s closing lines could be an address to their readers or to an audience at a live event:
Spit out the chrysanthemums. Eat light.
Eat a sandwich. Darlings, I’m not writing this
with you in mind
but you’re there. (127)
Presence is redefined in these moments as something more emotional than embodied, perhaps as a corollary to the disidentification with the body expressed elsewhere. Once again, Puro draws on their personal history to build larger, more-inclusive narratives, and this expansive “you” enables us to participate in their project of making “[e]very personal / tragedy political.” (126)
What Puro offers through this collection is itself a remedy, a series of treatments, and an exhortation to inhabit the world in spite of fear. Here are reflections on the illogical persistence of beauty in a society fundamentally shaped by racism, queer- and transphobia, poverty, and colonialism. Here are loss, despair, anticlimax, and glimmers of a weary and battered hope. As medicine, Each Tree Could Hold a Noose or a House therefore invites a final series of prescriptions: Sit on the nearest bench. Read it carefully. Eat the last persimmon, unapologetically.