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By Lucia LoTempio
If you were to shout back into the cavern of childhood, what would reverberate back? The opening image of Rainie Oet’s No Mark Spiral features the young speaker and their brother calling down into a “tall brass vase,” answered not just with their own voices, but with a swarm of wasps. The tone is set as a “cloud of needles” and No Mark Spiral proceeds as a study of intimacy through an echo-chamber of childhood recollection.
Spiraling around the quick, unexpected illness of their grandmother Baba Galya and her death in 2003, the chapbook clings to moments between siblings, our speaker Jacob and their younger brother Mark. And with the sleek prose blocks of the multiple “No Mark Spiral” poems, I felt as if I was stealing vignettes through a window, particularly a window above a kitchen sink or some other domestic apparatus.
Opting to illustrate “mundane” snapshots of childhood rather than the details of their grandmother’s illness felt true to how memory functions, highlighted by the collage art interlude like a disjointed kaleidoscope of childhood memory. The attention to “small moments” revealed the contradictions and privations of sibling life — of secret coded games, of shared hurt, of malice, of lies, of oneness, of stark separation, of deep love that is not totally understandable.
Mark is the focal point of the chapbook, and much of the speaker’s utterances are magnetized to Mark in flashback. Each “No Mark Spiral” is paired with a datestamp and an object shared or mediated between the two siblings. Even in an erasure of Mark (“Erasure of Mark 11”), the speaker seems to be consumed by him: “I’m hitting / Mark’s surface / Mark opens / I fall in / closes / trapping me” (42).
I was interested in moments of sameness, like the visceral mirrorings of bodily self-harm, accidental or purposeful (16), contrasted with moments of intentional detachment, like the speaker blocking Mark’s sight as they touch and recognize each part of their own body (19). Ultimately, the most memorable moments with Mark are those tinged with tenderness, notably the midpoint turn of the chapbook in which the speaker asks that Mark not be woken.
Throughout the chapbook is an attention to seeing paired with happenings of seeing undone. Oet presents a wonderful image of the speaker, spread out unbuckled in the back seat of the family car, their rapidly moving hand seen as a blur and then unseen by focusing at the grey car ceiling (12). It’s a wonderful vacillation that underscores both this repeated motif and the characterized youth in the speaker. Speaking of Mark, Oet writes, “Still facing him, I close my eyes, see red flickering — setting sun reaching through holes in the trees” (10). And later, after being slapped by their mother, the speaker orients readers to their line of sight: “I’m looking up backwards, past my reflection in the glass door, at a cumulus cloud with a small hole in the center. A dark airplane emerges in the hole, for a second” (15). These moments that direct our sight, of forced point of view through speaker, mesh with this thread of looking back at childhood — an act, even for the self, that is always obscured yet intimate.
By the chapbook end, we are haunted with imagery of Baba Gayla’s ghost bubbling up, and Mark’s soft detachment from the speaker. The last poem flips through vignettes with Rebecca, a sister born soon after Baba Gayla’s death, signaling a change in dynamic, perhaps a move out of childhood. Though still with an intimate gaze, the close of the chapbook seems to promise a shift in Jacob and Mark’s relationship, something made new, inevitably, like growth, reverberating out beyond the book.
NO MARK SPIRAL By Rainie Oet
CutBank Books 2018
49 pages / $10.00
Rainie Oet is a previous contributor to The Offing. Read their work here.
Lucia LoTempio is a poet from Buffalo, NY. She is the author of Hot with the Bad Things, which will be published by Alice James Books in May 2020. She is the co-author, with Suzannah Russ Spaar, of the chapbook Undone in Scarlet from Tammy (2019).