A review of Give a Girl Chaos by Heidi Seaborn

Reviewed by Debby Bacharach

Give a Girl Chaos
(and see what she can do)

by Heidi Seaborn
Mastodon Publishing
ISBN-13 : 978-1732009141, 15 March 2019, $16, Paperback, 112 pages

Reading Heidi Seaborn’s first book of poems, Give a Girl Chaos, I had to pause at some points because I was so disturbed by the horrors she shared. Other times I slowed because I felt like she had poured a basket of butterflies over my head—oh the gorgeous delight of being right there in that moment. But I also could not put this book down. It is so well woven together, poems connecting, themes building, that I could not wait to see what happened next. 

Seaborn jumps to her themes immediately with the terrifying and exhilarating title poem. After a long list of all the ways chaos can disrupt our lives from dinner party guests who stay too long to cancer in our cells, the speaker boldly proclaims:

a girl who harnesses Chaos

can whip winds into a horde 

     of butterflies

hush hurricanes    settle 

storms    salve spirits 

O give a girl a little Chaos 

see what she can do. (“Give a Girl Chaos”)

We are warned we are about to walk into a maelstrom, but also promised that in this chaos, the girl will triumph. With the help of Seaborn’s use of form, oblique angles, and sensory details, we enter into the chaos of a marriage that is not working, world politics across time, and the rape of a young teen.

In the first section, Seaborn’s varying poetic forms contain the emotional chaos of a woman leaving her husband. The ghazal with its reoccurring end word lets the speaker keep touching and then backing away from the problem: “his weather” is pervasive, ever present (Weather). An extended metaphor lets the hornets “frantic flight” speak obliquely of her own (Stung). And in the process poem, “How to Hold a Heart,” Seaborn sets up a literal scenario “weighing ten ounces, the heart feels unexpectedly heavy” and then moves the poem from the literal to the metaphoric as the speaker walks away from the heartless man. 

Seaborn sharpens her meaning not just with form, but with how she lays the line on the page. In a poem about sailing, she makes a concrete poem, putting the lines in the shape of a sail. In a poem about a car crash, the words too crash all over the page:

Muffie slammed into me

screaming my legs Page legs

something bad a jumble Mom says

I fell off the back seat Muffie when we sleep in the same bed

on top of me                 Mom says are you

playing horse       all right

a sticky lemon drop are you all right (“Crash”)

The word placement reflects not just a jumble of body parts but of voices, comprehension, and memory. In the same chaotic moment, we are in the car, playing in the childhood home, and in the mind of the speaker. Seaborn’s control of the line is a way to control chaos, to find a structure with which to speak of it. She writes of a teen kidnapped and begging for her life, “I whisper just a girl just a girl just a girl just a girl only a girl a girl just a girl a girl.” (“Tuesday”) The line covers the entire page and feels like it keeps going for eternity, as does the speaker’s plea.

Seaborn is willing to not only leave the left and right margins, but even the horizontal line. In the second section, which focuses on political and environmental chaos, she sends us a series of postcards. How do we know they are postcards? Because, if you turn the book so the right margin is on top, you can read lines like this: “POSTCARD/Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia 25.04.79.”  Like a postcard, these poems are short and focus on a small moment—“I’m bleeding, hunched roadside” (Crossing the Dead Sea) or “wine from a shop runs / down a sloping street” (Earthquake). Even though Seaborn brings the reader a whirlwind of chaos from across the globe, the postcard form grounds us. 

The central physical and spiritual chaos of this book is the kidnap and rape of a teen girl. And then the fall-out from that moment. Seaborn takes an oblique angle on this material. She doesn’t describe the moment when the man put his hands around the child’s neck, but we do hear of “a thumb-bruise necklace / around my throat” (Tuesday). The speaker says, “I do remember / thwackthwackthwack/ from the tennis club down the hill” (Tuesday) displacing the physical attack onto the normal sounds of summer in this community but also with those sounds, bringing the attack to center stage. She continues implication as her central tool in this section. A college student is forced to drink tea, but the reader understands when Seaborn writes “But it is teatime he thinks, she came / to his dorm room for this. He palms the crown of her head, lifts the cup / to her closed mouth” we have been reading about a rape. (“Tealeaves”). I could not help but juxtapose the imagery in this poem with the Thames Valley Police video illustrating consent through drinking tea. They both take an indirect approach, but the video is almost cute; Seaborn’s poem is terrifying.  

How Seaborn orders the poems also implies a message rather than stating it. A poem called “Hypothermia Survival Guide” is literally about falling through the ice, but given its place in the book, these lines:

as your crazy sets in, groan for some body. 

Yowl for sweat, stink of human flesh 

to haul you from the suck of dreams pooling, 

stripped to a husk, cradled as you burn back alive.

feel like a clear commentary on the crazy of suppressing pain, burning back alive, a triumph of coming back to oneself. Placed as the last words in this section, these lines become about both the survival of a literal hypothermia and all the preceding near death experiences the speaker has endured.

And the speaker comes back with great love and delight. The last two sections bring us a mother’s love for her children, a daughter’s love for her father, and a wife’s love for her husband. These poems, in particular, luxuriate in sensory details. The speaker and her lover eat oysters “with charred bread, arugula salad, cold rosé / gaze toward their birth waters as the sun spills its last light.” In the poem “What It’s Like to Fall in Love” the speaker falls in love with everything:

Oh I love, love the rhododendron

blushing newborn pink, love

the neighbor’s rosy plum vine maple

& love the neighbor too

The book is called “Give a Girl a Chaos,” but the sub-title is “and see what she can do.” As I was reading this book, I started to hear in my mind Holly Near’s song “Fight Back,” an anthem I used to sing at rallies. Like Near, Seaborn is triumphant and resounding about women surviving chaos. She shows us that the girl who has been through chaos can catch the joy in every moment and overflow with love. And she can make powerful art. 

About the reviewer: Deborah Bacharach is the author of After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). She received a 2020 Pushcart honorable mention and has been published in journals such as The Adroit Journal, Poetry Ireland Review, Vallum, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Southampton Review among many others. She is an editor, teacher and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com.