Rules for Walking Out by Crysta Casey (Cave Moon Press, 2017)
He shot himself
in the chest and stomach
on the night of last month’s full moon.
That was the day before he turned 50.
Now, he keeps writing the same letter
over again and sleeps a lot.
(from “Hell and Heaven”)
Does war ever satisfy? Does the military ever satisfy? Does the institution of recovery for veterans ever satisfy? Does mental health ever satisfy? I suppose what it takes is to define “satisfaction.” Crysta Casey’s poems, which tackle the aforementioned topics and much, much more, rarely feel satisfying, and yet they do feel emblematic and carry weight to cherish, pity, and endow energies of sympathy. Rules for Walking Out extends to the realms of painfully familiar and frighteningly relevant in this 2018. They are poems that are sad, often to the point of hilarity: one option is to laugh off the grim realities of those who were forsaken, abused, and derailed. These poems are poems of clarity and vision, and perhaps the clearest and most illuminating moments of sickeningly stark reality are indeed the clutch of satisfaction after all.
The book is not incessant. It is not long to the point of exhaustion. It is difficult from the beginning, through the middle, and to the end. But it is not a lengthy journey by ways of the stories as poems. It is the entire grand finale of explosive works of fire giving light to the shadowy night. It is grotesque. It is the writhing tendril and lit fuses. It is a collection of poems as real as poems can be. It highlights the buoyant statement of Graves, who claimed the difference between those poets and those insane is that poets write it all down. And in this case, doing so is to create a reality that is invisible, marginalized, and regularly forgotten. The victims. The servitude of those victims, who have somehow crawled into their own corners and stood, stupefied and unable to integrate into the fortress of the mainstream. No, not just being unable, but rather, quite defiantly, refusing to, even by asking questions, thinking spiritually, greeting and integrating the best intentions, the holiest friendships, and grandest circumstances.
“Are you a wanderer too?”
the doctor asks me. I don’t answer,
but run barefoot ten times
around the cement rectangular
sundeck, ducking umbrellas.
(from “Glass Houses”)
In Rules for Walking Out, it is almost as though Casey’s collected works work to track and advertise all the cruelties and distinctions that appeared before her own individuality, her life and attempts at living. The book, I should say, is autobiographical and reads like a notebook: uncut, uncensored, unafraid. Casey’s life moved from a mediocre early adulthood to serving in the Marine Corps, where she fell into inequity and became entrapped amongst the dominating, pimping masculinity of her superiors. A dualistic shift happened: responding to the abuse of the system and its sexualized pockets, and being encouraged to create, Casey declared herself a “Poet in Residence” and was promptly discharged. Her biography takes her to the mental health ward of a Californian hospital (where, symbolically and intensely, she learns of her mother’s failing physical health and corresponding in-patient reality in a hospital nearby) and, inevitably, up to a very anticlimactic Seattle.
The poverty-stricken Seattle wastes of the 20th Century, and Casey’s time within them, form descriptions of a continuation of the frightening and of the marginalization she experienced in her life’s prior chapters. Consequentially, the poems of her Seattle period also work, and they work through a poignant and balanced direction to confront the ugliest, meanest face of the state of the VA (as a system) and those humans who suffer (regularly) through it. These poems are flashes, to be sure, of a much larger and undescribed life, which is almost imaginably intolerable and/or awash by way of prescription medication, depression, and other ways of making sense and staying alive. And that there is so much existing beyond the poems make the poems themselves that much larger and conceptually fantastical, despite their harsh naturalism.
The sailboat on my wall
is forever sailing.
If we are its crew,
we have fallen overboard,
our drowned bodies floating
in life jackets on the surface.
(from “Hell and Heaven”)
Almost along the lines of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, much of Rules for Walking Out can be read like a collection of faces and identities as much as it can be read as Casey’s memoirs. It is, in a way, communal. This indicative quality of the writing demonstrates Casey’s commitment toward her role as a poet, which ultimately is the role of a community’s leader. Though action is often reserved, Casey floats about among her peers and, through documentation and acknowledgment, releases them from injustices. At least in her own, timeless, allegorical way. And I can’t help but think that perhaps this process, as brief and intense as it is having been collected and focused in Rules for Walking Out, may be of significant potential when it comes to analyzing War. War, like the wars we fight each day by way of those who bring us conflict, oppression, and harm, may be relieved (if not healed) by steps toward that acknowledgment. That is, following in Casey’s footsteps we may have the opportunity to revitalize our understanding of the forms War takes, and its systemic and unbelievably antagonistic persistence toward the individuals within and surrounding it.
And I couldn’t tell them—I would not be able to tell anyone until the news was officially released. I would go home with murder on my mind.
(from “Rude Awakening in the Public Affairs Office”)
Rules for Walking Out, in its prologue and four sections of poems, leads the reader on an examining that is worth the brief and enduring push—every second of it. The book additionally includes sections written by Casey’s peers and mentors, including Deborah Woodard, Trisha Ready, and Esther Altshul Helfgott. Not merely a memorial for Casey, who passed away in 2008, these additional writings are insightful critiques that demonstrate the powerful, empowering and inspiring qualities of a community of writers that truly learned from Casey and continue to learn through her published, available words. This counterpoint to the bulk of the work and its unsettling nature serves as its own expanse. There are boundaries here and they are clearly identified, and there is a positively-charged relief in the wake of such grave shadows, be they absurd or truly entrenched in terror. I imagine those who follow Casey’s line of writing will find many opportunities to embrace this holistic and inclusive structure in many more ways than one individual can imagine. Even that potential makes this book doubly so in its ability to satisfy and define satisfaction.
I gave my name
rank and serial number,
said I was a poet. Beyond
that I refused to speak.
(from “A Curse”)
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All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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