Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Z213: Exit is the first book in the Poena Damni trilogy. I could give a summary of the plot, but that would be an injustice, because this isn’t the kind of book one reads for the plot. There are plot elements which progress, but the book is better described as a collection of somewhat fragmentary images revolving around similar themes: escape, fugitives, war, the Bible, and pain. These fragmentary images are filtered through the perspective of a fugitive fleeing the horrors of war. The narrator—sometimes “you,” sometimes, “I”—is on a train for much of the book. There are soldiers, and sometimes the narrator has to leave the train and be searched, have papers checked, find food somewhere, that sort of thing. But again, this description of action doesn’t give any real insight into what this book is trying to accomplish.
The book opens mid-sentence, mid-thought, “these names and that’s how they found me.” It’s a jarring introduction followed by a mostly solid page + of run-ons and sentences beginning with “And.” This sets the tone perfectly, signaling to the reader that the language will reveal character and action as much or more as actual descriptions. This is the first full sentence on the page: “And as soon as they brought me I stayed for a while and then they took me it was a building of four wards large yards and rooms the rest of the people were there four wards separate not far from the sea.” It reads like a child or a person in shock, overwhelmed. Life is coming at this person so quickly that sense cannot be made of it. What stability once may have existed is gone, and now, all this person can do is react. There are scenic details, but they come too quickly to grasp and are soon replaced with more details. The result is a liminal feeling, a lack of security.
At times, the text is in solid blocks resembling vignettes or prose poems, but other sections are scattered across the page, more resembling poems. These fragments also highlight the emotional state and experiences of the narrator. Because of the tone and structure of the book, the reader is drawn into this liminal experience as well.
Another element that comes into play is a Bible along with fragmentary, sometimes half-remembered quotes of scriptures. This is what society has given the narrator to help with the journey through life. The Bible represents comfort for the narrator, though it’s a dubious comfort translated through a very specific interpretation of religious meaning: “…you suffer, but nobody is punishing you, they are just setting your soul free. Don’t be afraid because while you fear death they will rend your soul like demons. Only calm down and you will see the angels who are setting you free and then you will be free.” Here, we see familiar ideas of angels bringing salvation and peace in an afterlife, but it’s skewed just enough to make it somewhat alien seeming.
Who is this narrator running from? The law? An invading force? A surveillance state? His own death? God? The same could be said of any of us, because all of us make our own mysteries with our guilt.
C.L. Bledsoe is a Free State Review poet. His most recent collections are Trashcans in Love and Ray’s Sea World.