in review: Perennial
by Kelly Forsythe
Publication Date: August 7, 2018
Publisher: Coffee House Press
In her debut poetry collection, Perennial, Kelly Forsythe tackles a subject that has become unfortunately ubiquitous in American culture: the Columbine High School shooting that occurred on April 20, 1999. Perennial forces the reader to inhabit the bodies of both those directly involved with the shooting and those on the outside looking in, demonstrating the lasting impact of the event. Forsythe writes just as convincingly from the perspectives of the victims and the shooters as she does from her own seventh-grade self, whose persona is sometimes juxtaposed with the events of the shooting. The depth of Forsythe’s research is heavily felt in these pages, as she draws from police reports, transcripts, and journal excerpts for the language and images used in her poems. This research helps Forsythe to accurately depict the shooting itself as well as its aftermath and the way trauma affects how one sees and moves through the world.
Not surprisingly, given the name of the collection, Forsythe uses flower imagery as a means to convey the act of coping with trauma. In “Curved,” she describes the deceptive nature of April, the same month in which the Columbine shooting occurred. The “false / green hanging limp on trees like broken / necklaces” makes the narrator believe that she can plant flowers and have them grow, despite the fact that the ground is still cold and unyielding. In much the same way, the figures she embodies in her poems must deal with an environment unable to change to fit the way they have been changed by their experiences. One particularly poignant poem, “Homeroom,” recounts what it’s like to try to step into one’s normal routine after such an attack and explores why that isn’t possible:
that morning, we glanced
toward our windows to measure
the drop, we felt our bodies hum
touching shoulders during fire drills,
we mentioned metal detectors, we
noticed boys’ hair, we noticed the color
black, we noticed each other’s
hands, we noticed each other
Forsythe’s ability to subtly transition from the ordinary acts of childhood to images of and alluding to the shooting mark the ease with which these events continue to creep into the subconscious. The mundane, normal activities associated with being a teenager—developing a first crush, writing in a journal, going into a classroom—suddenly take on new connotations. Forsythe is deliberate when she consistently uses the word connection in her poems, as the connotation of this word also begins to change. While connection at times refers to the bond experienced among the survivors of the shooting, it also relates to the connections that suddenly arise from having to second-guess behaviors that are taken for granted. As in “Homeroom,” there is no longer simplicity behind the phrase “we noticed each other.”
A talented wordsmith, Forsythe is interested as much in the meaning behind each word she chooses as the emotion each word evokes. In several poems, she explores the duality of certain words, such as in “1999” when she contemplates the double meaning of contempt, “that one can be ‘held’ in it, a cradle of derision / in the arms of a courtroom” or “in a classroom, also a kind / of holding.” Forsythe’s diction is so purposeful that she will sometimes use a word connected with the parts of a gun (i.e., “a barrel of lipstick”), so that even when she is not outright speaking about the shooting, it is always there in some small way.
Perennial begins and ends with births, but where the births in the first poem are quiet occurrences, the last poem transitions from birth to action and rebirth. The narrator speaks of conjuring a snake from a horse’s mane that then turns into a fang, which is later split into glass. One image changes into another, then another. Yet, the narrator is “not fearing / this power.” Despite the constant uncertainty, there is a kind of optimism, reinforced by the image of the glass “as flowers / bursting open in spring, everywhere.” The power of Forsythe’s poems is how they construct the possibility of a new narrative while keeping the truth intact.