A Review of James Allen Halls’ Now You’re the Enemy
by Jill Frischhertz
James Allen Hall’s book of poetry, Now You’re the Enemy, speaks to motherhood, childhood and the byproduct of this combination when mixed with sex and violence. The speaker bridges his undesirable upbringing with his current relationships through a reverberation of certain language; Hall “put the narrative [voice] in a laboratory” with a “narrowed noun and verb palate” (Hall). The result of this experiment is a consistent emotional explosion page after page. This emotion appears as a speaker’s obsessive venting, and I adore this rant of a book because it obsessively explores every crevice of this disturbing mother-son relationship. Rarely have I seen a subject covered so meticulously from head to toe, literally; Hall clearly does not want the reader to overlook the importance of flesh in his book because he mentions every nook of the body with a sensual and/or violent twist. “You Send me Roses” encapsulates this triangle between son, mother and sex, but it does so in a surprisingly abstract way, considering the transparency of the other poems.
You Send me Roses
Every window opens
out onto the red
and terrible things
of this world growing
My mouth is a vase.
In this piece, it is evident that every direction the speaker takes leads to the ugliness of humanity and all its waste pouring into his mouth. Even in this abstract piece, the speaker constructs an ugly world where he is the recipient of its waste. This poem, like this book, is the result of “terrible things”; and as the book reveals, the hands that pour this refuse belong to the speaker’s mother who appears as the source of all that is awful. Hall intricately and thoroughly exposes the reader to this connection between mother, son, and the “terrible” in chronological order: the first section focuses on the family, in particular the mother, while the second section focuses on how his past affects his present relationships.
Hall craftily points to the origin of the speaker’s dysfunctional adulthood through the titles in the first section: “Family Portrait, ” “Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas,” “Portrait of My Mother as Rosemary Woodhouse,” “Portrait of My Mother as Self-Inflicting Philomena,” “My Father’s Triumph,” “My Mother’s Love,” and “Brief History of My Mother.” AS the titles suggest, these poems define his family, particularly his mother. They speak of the very beginning while foreshadowing everything to follow. In “The Song,” the speaker shares his volatile entrance into the world and the warning that came with it: “My mother’s rapid heart told me, Be afraid. /In the sober white room, my mother said, I’m warning you.” “The Egg” compliments this piece by depicting his equally traumatic baby years with a volatile and godlike mother:
She has not asked to be
this world’s small god. I Want,
the boy begins, and before she can
stop herself, the god screams back,
Here’s Your Goddamn Pancakes! The egg
hits the child on the forehead and breaks.
On occasion, the speaker leaves his own experience and delves into his mother’s which allows the reader to connect to the misery of mother and child all the better. “Touch” is a perfectly horrible example:
My mother wakes because she can’t breathe.
Her father’s beard burns along her bottom lip.
His mouth opens her mouth.
Then her legs, his hands between them.
Her body so thin the kids in her class
call her zipper –
Despite the desire to put down the book because of similar graphic imagery throughout the book, the intensity of this string of tragedy pulls me by the collar to the end.
In section two, the speaker redirects his venting to his own life, coming full circle; but he does not permit his audience to forget the sex and the mother: she lurks in the shadows of all the poems. After all, she is still the source of his misery even as an adult. The sections of “Heritage” exemplify Hall’s ability to connect past to present through brutal language and sensual imagery.
My father was beating my mother
Hs slap was quicker on her flesh. I wanted to break
The door down to shop him from hurting her. Then my face
turned red. The word sex blared loud
The men in the photographs never have heads.
They are giant cocks, shaved balls.
I want them to have eyes and lips.
Their words would make me whole.
Nothing is more real than licking your best friend’s asshole.
Throughout section two, Hall overwhelms the reader with body images: “misted flank,” “shaved crotch,” “legs spread,” “back bending,” “limp in her hands,” etc., linking past to his present. By the book’s end, there is no doubt about why the speaker is the way he is or why he feels the need to share his story; it is a form of therapy and healing.
Like a scary movie I keep watching, I read Hall’s poetry with one eye open. The important part is that I keep going, and I keep going because of the desire to know, for better or worse, how the story ends. Like the movie, I have to know if the speaker survives, but the last poem does not provide the answer. However, if you look at the book as a form of therapy, you can assume the speaker is better off now because, by exposing his life, he is free of his mother’s hold.