January 16, 2019

Lot’s Wife Speaks

“LAURA EVE ENGEL’S DEBUT POETRY COLLECTION Things that Go (Octopus Books, 2018) takes as a point of departure a moment from the Book of Genesis, in which Lot’s wife turns back to see the destruction of Sodom and is turned into a pillar of salt. Through the prism of this ancient and formative story, Engel contemplates the act of looking and its ethics in compact and combustible language, while also addressing our present moment of media oversaturation and the startling nearness of livestreamed, clickable tragedy.

We live in a time—Engel explains in “I Can Watch a Man in a Cage Get Burned Alive,” about Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh’s 2015 murder by ISIS—where at the press of a button, “I can watch the orange of his jumpsuit go up. / His face, I can make comparisons. I can turn the sound up or off.” The act of watching is fleeting, momentary, but nevertheless indelible: “If I can watch an orange prayer go up in a man’s body / I can never unwatch it.” Engel returns to this video in “Spectator,” demonstrating how “the invasion of a man’s / dying face in my home” is both a startling imposition and an ethical obligation, which one may choose not to take up or one may live with, and through. Informed by the image of Lot’s wife, punished for her attention to devastation, Engel speaks from within the pillar of salt that is a woman horrified, numbed, present for and broken by catastrophe. In Engel’s retelling, Lot’s Wife has become a calcified tear, “a cataract of ideas” that stares at unspeakable destruction and tries to find words for it.

Engel reconstructs our world, abstracting and instrumentalizing elements of natural and built American environments to address moral concerns. Throughout, she introduces other kinds of pillars—skyscrapers, museums and monuments, each cold and static yet teeming with life, each evidence of human ingenuity and folly. At times, her descriptions are almost cubist in their abstraction, as everyday objects become spare geometrical shapes, opening a space for new meanings: “the new billboard / divides the sky from itself.” The buildings in this work do not simply stand firm—they ripple as reflections in water, they split the sky into parts. In this splitting, they resist the phallological urge to read them only as monuments to power or progress.”

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