Goat in the Snow by Emily Pettit
"Get up. Get up and pretend your head isn't full / of tiny broken sticks," Emily Pettit demands in "How to Start a Fire without Sticks," one of the many "how to" poems in her latest collection Goat in the Snow. I read this book when I was having a particularly bad day, and I needed that kick in the butt. Pettit's poetry is perfect for that kind of day. Direct and bossy, it makes me listen up. "Get up," Pettit orders. "Take me out." "Be Careful." "Yell and yell." Many of the poems address the reader with instructional titles like "How to be Responsible," "How to Appear Normal in Front of Your Enemy or Competitor," and "Your Job is to Look Both Ways," which puts Pettit in the position of instructor. She is not, however, the type of instructor a reader might be accustomed to. She is not the strict and consistent instructor, or the gentle and patient instructor; here she has invented herself as a new kind of teacher, one you learn from by observing, one who tricks you (as she tricks herself) into exposing yourself for who you really are.
Take, for example "How to Find a Robber," a love poem in disguise. Though the tone in this poem at first sounds flippant with Pettit fake masquerading as a tough guy saying, "Don't look. Don't look anywhere. / I am behaving like such an animal," it soon turns tender and vulnerable:
There's your voice. There are some
well given instructions. When it comes to
performing some of the most difficult
and laborious operations of abstract thought,
I fail. Hey person, I love you! I kick at rocks.
I pretend to be a very treacherous fox.
Foxes will also eat vegetables
when they are available. Are you available?
"Are you available?" It is a direct question, but because of the images that precede it -- the speaker kicking at rocks and pretending to be a fox -- this question comes across as less than confident, maybe even shy. I imagine the speaker asking it pink-cheeked, her eyes downcast.
In Goat in the Snow, readers watch as Pettit puts on her bossy pants and poses as an expert, but this is (intentionally) revealed to be a (fairly transparent) ruse. From page one, she divulges her flaws, asking in the poem "Red Wings Collapsing," "Have you ever built a giant mess with tiny tools?" Yes! Haven't we all? She's tough on herself when she questions her hang-ups in "In the Inside Outside:"
How is it
going to change you?
To let go of something
you've never held.
and analyzes her insecurities in "How to Find Water Somewhere Else":
…Is this what loving
someone is like? This looking at someone doing
something and doing something. And it keeps
going and going and it keeps on going.
It is a new kind of emergency. Very much falling.
Calling attention to a shy fact. Very confusing.
Instead of instructing readers, Pettit forces us to examine our own flaws, hang-ups, and insecurities from a new angle. By "calling attention to a shy fact," she makes me stop and consider: What is loving someone like? How does it feel to watch your lover doing something? How does it feel when that first rush of love doesn't fade but instead "keeps going and going?"
As I read this book, I was constantly underlining. Pettit describes emotions in new, and sometimes astonishing language. Consider, "Shame had got us down. A monsoon / impulse." What does that feel like? Two of the blurbs on the back of this book use the word "odd," but I think Pettit's diction creates relatable moments. To me she strives for precise descriptions of universal experiences using unadorned, true-to-life images like "A dead bird's wing frozen to the trunk of the car," or "A manmade lake in the middle of a concrete landscape," and clear, distinct metaphors:
…A vocabulary of alarm stuck inside my mouth.
Like a giraffe inside a giraffe, inside a giraffe,
Inside of a lion. An arsenal of weather.
Reading Goat in the Snow, I feel at once like Pettit is an old friend guiding me through life's emotional "haul and pull," and also like I am witnessing something new, something that blows up the tired descriptive language I sometimes fall back on, and shows me that there exists so many surprising ways to say the things that can easily get stuck in our mouths. Her poetry makes me want to try harder. I love her. I hate her. And she knows it. After all, she warned me, "You are familiar with the rules, are you not? / When I bring you to beautiful places you must / forgive me for bringing you to beautiful places."
Goat in the Snow by Emily Pettit