The speakers in Breathe. Breathe.‘s poems often toe the line between colloquial, conversational vernacular and cryptic, imagery-laden verse. Even during moments of abstraction, though, the poetry is above all else intimate and real, unafraid to state its meanings outright. Consider, for instance, the closing line in “Funhouse of Madness,” which confronts the reader with a direct question: “… but dread is an affliction, isn’t it?” To this reader, the line is exemplary of the book’s contents: Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi explores the caustic force that is fear, especially within the context of domestic violence, but she also recognizes that afflictions can be diagnosed, treated and even healed.
These poems, written almost entirely in free verse, often depict speakers seeking solace (or warding off danger) in the ludic spaces of the “natural world” – Breathe. Breathe. is rife with references to forests, lakesides, nonhuman animals and insects. The speakers often give off the impression of physical or emotional isolation, with threats or indeterminable forces lingering on the periphery, just out of sight.
And there is no shortage of threat to be found between this book’s covers; in addition to her obvious interest in folklore and magic realism, Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi showcases her commitment to the horror genre. In many ways, her short stories are even more confrontational than her poems. These narratives brutally address cycles of abuse, violent vengeance and terrifying fissures in the surface of reality.
Although Breathe. Breathe. incorporates works of both prose and poetry, it is a unified and cohesive book. The author makes good use of recurring thematic threads, imagining and reimagining her focuses within different formal contexts. This is a strange collection, full of fantastical moments and unexpected ruptures in domestic spaces, but above all else it is real. That is not necessarily a term I use often when describing works of “genre” fiction or poetry, but I think it is the one that fits best here.