Green Hills Literary Lantern




What Loss Taught Me

Author: Stephen Furlong

Press: Nostrovia! Press, 2018


Loss abounds in Stephen Furlong’s new book, What Loss Taught Me—particularly of parents (and, indirectly, of shelter) and self. The speaker’s father moves in and out of these poems like a sometimes ambivalent, sometimes malevolent ghost. For Furlong, the father here is missing and painful, a packed away rain jacket or a distant message passed down the paternal line. A mother, too, isn’t a mother; just ask the speaker of “When it Rains,” a poem about sexual abuse: “you said all the right words. / Maybe that’s why my mother made / us hug.”

Poetry has long been preoccupied with losing. But what strikes readers the most about the “loss” in What Loss Taught Me is really a loss of anchors.

The speaker in these poems is grappling for something to hold onto, having had the sure weight of self-actualization ripped from beneath the child version of himself. The water metaphors abound: in “The Game,” he writes of an abuser’s hands that “They reach into your head, still above water. / Yet you’re drowning. / His hand reaches for your / mouth.” The line break on “your” gives readers a moment to breathe amidst the tense confession of serious sexual abuse, only to plunge the reader back into the pained mindset of the speaker, who knows abusers—no matter how close in DNA—are never anchors, but rather asphyxias. The poem is not for the proverbial faint of heart: the repetitions of “forced” and jaw dropping conflation of the victim’s curving smile with the curve of erect genitalia leave readers feeling like they, too, are crusted with the filth of the ever-present Mississippi.

Still, just as rivers can sweep a victim downstream against their will, they have the potential to be beautiful. In “Nostalgia,” the speaker references the redness of “August on the Mississippi,” a vivid description of hue in a poem filled with the dull, damp, memories of a grey cement basement where trauma lives. Furlong seems to channel Annie Dillard’s obsession with the natural world—for Dillard, it’s the fecundity of nature; for Furlong, it’s the perverse nature of water as both a suffocator and a savior. Langston Hughes spoke of the temptations of river water in “Suicide’s Note,” but here Furlong is more than willing to leap into the ocean itself if it washes clean. “I had to swim there,” he writes, and later, in a journey-turned-maritime voyage personified: “I am the sea / the strength inside / unmeasurable.”

Though the idea of a shower washing away the perceived sins of a victim is inherently cliché—when doesn’t this appear in primetime TV—Furlong keeps these images surprisingly fresh with turns of phrase that run the gamut from heart-wrenching to punny. In “Definition of Home Part I,” the speaker conflates “I’ll miss you” as “misuse,” an allusion to the lack of agency that permeates the book. But in “These Words Will Make Sense to Someone or No One,” readers are surprised to chuckle at lines like, “Doubts reach into your pocket / and expect change.” Language is an endless playground for Furlong, who in another poem toys with the ordering of words: “Though the past must have loved me. / The past, though, must have loved me.” Later: “The past must have loved me though.” The author reminds readers of the poet Jeffery McDaniel—unafraid to turn words into jokes and jokes into straight-faced confessionals before the reader knows what they’ve read. 

And what they’ve read? A resonating and haunting collection full of free verse, experimental structures, carefully spaced layouts, formal sonnets, and even found poetry. One may ask if the world needs more books of confessional poetry, a la the inimitable Sylvia Plath. But in the era of the #Metoo Movement, these poems in particular are urgent, immediate, and necessary. Furlong says “There is no truth in / forgiving and forgetting” but perhaps the more prescient metaphor for how his readers can and should view this work—and any stops on the road to recovery—is in these lines: “The exhaust pipe burns / white smoke black depending / on what you put into the engine.”



Kasey Perkins, who teaches under Kasey Grady, is a professor, freelance editor, and writer who completed her MFA in poetry from the University of Missouri – St. Louis in 2014. She is the recipient of the 2014 Margaret Leong Children’s Poetry Prize and received her MA in English at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, where she was both a frequent performer and organizer in the poetry slam community. Her chapbook, When the Dead Get Mail, is available through Finishing Line Press:

She has appeared in the Chattahoochee Review, Chariton Review, Digital Americana, Green Hills Literary Lantern, the Wisconsin Review, the Oracle, Lumina, and many more. She currently teaches first year writing and foodways courses at Washington University in St. Louis.