Review: Half-Hazard by Kristen Tracy

by Anna Girgenti

Kristen Tracy’s debut collection,  Half-Hazard , available from Graywolf Press

Kristen Tracy’s debut collection, Half-Hazard, available from Graywolf Press

The poems in Kristen Tracy’s debut collection Half-Hazard (Graywolf Press) are warning signs in a big, dangerous world. Tracy leads her readers by the hand into a surreal landscape of circus animals, vampires, and the fields of Idaho. An author of twelve novels for young readers, Tracy brings all the magic and pain of adolescence into her poetry. The collection’s first poem, “Good-Bye, Trouble,” begins like a fairytale: “I fell from a Bible. A half-blond tease. / With a good good start, I struck out / God-filled and thrilled to claim a spot.” Even in these first few lines, Tracy asserts a poetic voice unlike much of what exists in American poetry today, experimenting with sound and repetition, building a lyrical momentum with quick, striking sentences. As a result, the poems’ speakers are often whimsical, but also wise, and they open up with the fearless honesty of a drunk aunt at a family party. In “Sometimes This Happens,” a farmer’s daughter describes, through enjambed couplets and short sentences, a pregnant cow who “drinks alone because something is wrong.” In “YMCA, 1971,” the speaker recalls a moment when her divorced parents failed to resuscitate a dying man on a tennis court. With an accessibility and simplicity of language comparable to Billy Collins, these poems depict suffering with fresh insight, so that the reader becomes a child learning about death for the first time.

Much of the collection offers prophetic warnings, such as in the title poem, which begins with Tracy’s bold, surreal style: “They can put a girl on the moon right now, I suppose,” but the speaker warns — “Dangers here. Perils There. It’ll go how it goes.” While Tracy sets out to caution her readers, especially young women, of the world’s dangers, she delves into her own life for reference, from her Mormon upbringing on a farm in Idaho to her work as a writing teacher. “Life began all wrapped up in the Lord,” begins the speaker in “Bountiful, Utah, 1972,” and what follows is the slow fall from a strict religious upbringing, or “twenty-five years of ordinary discoveries.” The poem’s surprising imagery mimics the surprise of discovery: “I unsnapped God like a clip-on tie. / Satan never brought his fantastic army.” With Tracy’s profound understanding of suffering comes an equally profound compassion for earth’s innocent creatures. “My students have problems,” reveals a writing instructor in “Tell,” and she longs to ease their pain, “But the world isn’t perfect. / We suffer even when we do everything right.” In many of Tracy’s poems, tenderness blooms not in spite of the world’s cruelty but because of it. As much as they warn us of the world’s dangers, these poems offer healing and protection.

Take “To the Tender,” for instance. Here the speaker seeks to keep a baby blue jay safe from crows, because “even if the world is half bad, it remains / half good.” This call to empathy feels ever more pertinent surrounded by poems about death and danger. Animals appear at every turn in the collection, and they remind us of our most basic needs, instincts, and limitations. These poems are an invitation to foster compassion in an increasingly perilous world, but on the other hand, living with tenderness means experiencing constant heartbreak. To remain open-hearted is to empathize with every dying thing, as in “The Unavoidable Pigeon.” The speaker, seeing a wounded pigeon on a city street, stifles her empathy, convinces herself not to take it home: “This bird // will never break my heart. Not right now. / Not tomorrow. Not next week when I find it / hammered to the road.” The animals, as Tracy paints them, parallel humans — naïve, broken, resilient.

While guiding its reader through a troublesome world, Half-Hazard remains completely vulnerable in its honesty. These poems do not claim to have all the answers, their speakers often lost and tired, but in them Tracy stirs some kind of dying embers, breaking through the walls that isolate us and bringing warmth to a cold house.

— Anna Girgenti is a freelance writer from Rockford, IL. Her first poetry chapbook, “Asking for Directions,” won the 2018 Iowa Chapbook Prize.