Madison Jones reviews THE SMALL BLADES HURT by Erica Dawson

December 1, 2015 Uncategorized 5593 Views
Madison Jones reviews THE SMALL BLADES HURT by Erica Dawson

Below, you’ll find an interview with our featured author for the upcoming winter solstice issue. We hope you’ll enjoy reading her work in the issue and that you’ll grab a copy of The Small Blades Hurt today! We will have an interview with the poet as our next post, so stay tuned!

Photo from Author’s Website

Erica Dawson. The Small Blades Hurt. Evansville, Indiana: Measure Press, 2013. 66 pp. $20.00, Hardback.

(Reprinted from The Journal).

Erica Dawson’s latest book whirls us like a drunken line dancer whose skillful footwork veers in and out of formal composure and into wild, playful lines and dark truths. In many ways, the book follows the narrative of her first collection, but Dawson isn’t embodying that Big-Eyed Afraid speaker anymore. Her lines possess a palpable confidence, a “tendency to lead” that comes from years of experience as a formalist writer. Dawson can swerve between lines and still keep the beat. She is as comfortable quoting Shakespeare and Whitman as she is singing every word to “Wagon Wheel” at the top of her lungs, no matter if the song’s “spokes [have] spun the road enough.” In the crown of sonnets in “New NASA Missions Rendezvous with Moon” she creates lines such as “Where there is space, there is, no doubt, a death / In the afternoon.” The bodies in The Small Blades Hurt search for those little deaths because “each mission is a tryst.”

Mary Oliver once said, “rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven.” These poems overflow with rhythm and pleasure. Yet, Dawson’s poems push us beyond reliability. They are genuinely surprising. The poems’ sudden shifts and unexpected turns of phrase are at the root of their potency. Dawson’s poems don’t feel bound to their rigid forms. Instead, Dawson uses forms to create resistance and tension in her stanzas, as in the poem “Black Matter,” when she says “All you mammas cry. Please, call / Me too American, too black.” These rhythms lull you into “body-heaven,” but their sharp turns astonish and sting.

The chorus of “I’ve half a mind to” echoes throughout The Small Blades Hurt. Dawson is constantly of two minds, somewhere between desire and rebirth. Her images bend and sizzle, rise and sing. She is as ready and willing to confront death as an afternoon experiencing la petite mort. Likewise, her surprising breaks give us everything from the disembodied voice of Al Green in “the bin / of half-off thongs” to “So I say damn the free / Water beneath the thick.” Her lines such as “Too many times. The Juliet” are rich with playful suggestion. We are further sliced by the blades of self-deprecating humor when the “Costume won’t fit [her] body” (49). These poems shirk off prim and rigid constraints only so they can let their hair down. Dawson’s visceral syllables don’t require the costume of form, but more than often they wear it well.

Part of the pleasure of reading The Small Blades Hurt is in its confident yet self-aware humor, especially about place. While her diverse depictions of the south include the mundaneness of overplayed songs, traffic jams on I-65, and layovers, Dawson’s willingness to make the best of the situation, to look for the unusual in the perfunctory, leads to moments of joy and pain, moments such as when a “Sweet cowboy said I gave him eyes / Said I was high-heeled trouble.” Dawson’s musical portrait of America and of the south contains multitudes, including cowboys and “cotton- / white conchs.” It is as gothic as it is playful and bawdy. From Mary Surratt to “Langston Hughes’ Grandma Mary” to Whitman’s “Damn brass / Reverie and all the leaves of grass / So green the small blades hurt,” this book is haunted by the pain and beauty of history. “A Poem that’s Not a Song or Set in the South” sets its sights on the Mason-Dixon line, swaying masterfully between wild syllables and tightly controlled rhymes. Her music is energetic and lustful.

As always, Dawson’s poems are filled with rich interactions with the natural world. She is “all lip, rising something / Like a right-after-a-storm river / Swelling like it just up and died.” But death to Dawson is just a place to start wanting again. Like Whitman’s nature, in which life and death are inseparable—“All goes onward and outward … and nothing collapses,”—what makes these little blades of grass so sharp are the little deaths human nature longs for: the swelter of a “Florida Funeral” where “The sky / Disguises heat in dawn’s abandoned air” or the thought that “Hanging will be a death something like classed- / up auto asphyxiation.” These poems cut at our very sense of desire. She moves us with her sharp wit, and she lifts us with her buoyant visions of the world. Dawson’s imagination sees wildness even in the monotonous strip-mall landscape. Reading this book is like knowing “Al Green is in the bush / And there’s a sidewalk sale.” The Small Blades Hurt is sharp. The lines swerve and pirouette. This book is confidently alive; it wants to be taken for a spin. Dawson may have “a tendency to lead,” but she won’t step on your toes.

About the Author

Photo and bio from author’s page.

Erica Dawson is the author of two collections of poetry:  The Small Blades Hurt (Measure Press, 2014) and Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser Press, 2007). Her poems have appeared inBarrow Street, Birmingham Poetry Review, Blackbird, Literary Imagination, Unsplendid, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals. Her poems have been featured in several anthologies, includingBest American Poetry 2008 and 2012, American Society: What Poets See, Living in Storms: Contemporary Poetry and the Moods of Manic-Depression, The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets. Her reviews have been featured in Florida Review, and she currently writes a freelance column, “Dark and Sinful,” for Creative Loafing Tampa.

Poetry Editor for the Tampa Review, she is also one of the editors of Mead: The Magazine of Literature and Libations, and serves on the advisory board for 32 Poems.

Born and raised in Maryland, Erica holds a BA from Johns Hopkins University, an  MFA from Ohio State University, and a PhD from University of Cincinnati.  She’s taught workshops and seminars at the Florida Arts Coalition’s Other Words Conference, St. Leo University’s Sandhill Writers Retreat, and DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon.  She’ll teach there again this summer, as well as at  Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference in Madison, CT.  An assistant professor at The University of Tampa, she teaches for the undergraduate English and Writing program and the Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing.

She lives in Tampa with her Shih-Tzu, Stella, whom she named after Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, not  Tennessee Williams’ Stella or Stella Artois, though Erica really likes Tennessee Williams and Stella Artois.

About the Book


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Praise for The Small Blades Hurt:

Reading Erica Dawson’s poems reminds me of the time a former race car driver took me on a crazy tour along the southern French coast’s narrowest roads. It felt dangerous and exhilarating. I kept peering over the edge of the cliffs at the ocean far below, and I kept thinking, “Well, this will be a beautiful place to die.” But that driver, much like Erica Dawson, was always in control. I love her poems for that control, and for their music and humor and eccentricity. She is one of my favorites. – Sherman Alexie, author ofBlasphemy: New and Collected Stories

We all agree: Erica Dawson possesses one of the finest sets of ears in contemporary poetry. She, too, sings America, and she sings it with a sound that is stridently authentic, uproarious, insightful, and full-heartedly human. If you’re not smitten by the last poem in this book, you should fly off to another planet. Earth is not for you. Her sound is in the soil. – Major Jackson, author of Holding Company

Erica Dawson is a poet of verve and nuance, of high learning and pop culture, of a classical music she seems to have invented herself.   As in her first book, Big-Eyed Afraid, she doesn’t stay afraid for long.  Here, in The Small Blades Hurt, are a brave tour de force tribute to Josephine Baker and a crown of sonnets that merges the imagery of love-gone-wrong and space travel.  Funny even when she’s sad, Dawson can wring your heart with a poem to a son not yet conceived, or with the simplest question: ‘Who’s dew to say that morning needed tears?” I simply love her work. – Mary Jo Salter, author ofNothing by Design

Like E. E. Cummings’s burlesque top banana (“viz. ‘Would you hit a woman with a child?—No, I’d hit her with a brick’ ”), Erica Dawson is “abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.” Her words never subside into shopworn sounds, each poem displaying her rare and enviable genius for making verse sing, which is to say croon, caterwaul, belt, syncopate, wail. In the tradition of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, she, too, sings America—and particularly the American South, from Texas and Oklahoma to Florida, Tennessee, and beyond. To Hughes’s twelve-bars, she adds Appalachian strings and Motown and to Whitman’s resplendent leaves the knowledge that sometimes it’s the smallest (newest, greenest) blades that sting us most. To steal a phrase, this book has mojo like a mofo! – David Yezzi, author of Birds of the Air

“Dawson draws an especially timely self-portrait.  She generates great energy by pulling at the impossible and sometimes pleasurable tangles of what is constant in us, and what is disposable in the world.” – Slate

“The Small Blades Hurt is a chronicle of a still-young life being lived to the fullest.” – The Hudson Review

“These poems show a poet who lives as vividly as she writes, dancing with cowboys, drinking 40s, singing and loving, all while holding her country up to the light, scrutinizing its incongruities, critiquing its injustices, reveling in its pleasures… For their music, for their recklessness, for their restlessness, her poems are insane and insanely her own. There is no one writing like Erica Dawson.” –  The Hopkins Review

Notable Links

The CPR Interview: Erica Dawson

Poet of the Month: Statement of Poetics 

Short Takes on Long Poems 

The University of Tampa, MFA Opening, Reading with Erica Dawson 


“Bees in the Attic”

“If My Baby Girl is White”


“Gave Proof”

“One Fish, Two Fish”

“Langston Hughes Grandma Mary Writes a Love Letter to Lewis Leary Years After He Dies Fighting at Harpers Ferry”

“Love Song”

“Speakers in the Devil’s-Walkingstick”

“Jesus Age”

About the Reviewer

Madison Jones is a Graduate School Fellow at the University of Florida, studying ecocomposition, rhetoric, new media, and nineteenth-century American literature, where he works with the journal Trace. Founder and editor-in-chief of Kudzu House Quarterly, he is a fifth-generation Alabamian and recently received a master’s in literature from Auburn University. He has published an article in Merwin Studies, and his reviews of ecocriticism and creative writing have appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, Southern Humanities Review, Journal of Ecocriticism, The Journal, storySouth, and elsewhere. His poetry, likewise focused on ecology, has appeared in Tampa Review, The Painted Bride Quarterly, The Saint Ann’s Review, Portland Review,Canary Magazine, The Greensboro Review, The Tusculum Review, and elsewhere. He has published a collection of poetry, Live at Lethe (Sweatshoppe 2013), and Reflections on the Dark Water, his second book, will be released by Solomon & George in spring 2016.

About author

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