Broadax  By Amy Lawless   Octopus Books , 131 pages, October 21, 2017   


By Amy Lawless

Octopus Books, 131 pages, October 21, 2017




Amy Lawless’ third collection of poems, Broadax, explores a multitude of subjects, including her relationship with her sister, past lovers, and male rage. A wide cast of characters populate the pages, including the Incredible Hulk and Timothy McVeigh. The poems are forceful and deeply personal, but not without humor.

The sister is the first recurring character to make an appearance. In the preface poem, “Unwrap a Tidy World to Reveal a Messier One,” the speaker recounts snooping through her sister’s desk drawer and finding a note that dashed any idea she had about the world being innocent and without violence. Her sister was no longer perfect and worthy of blind adoration: “I knew it was a secret. Other items sifted through were baseball cards and doodles displaying her artistic talents,” the speaker says, adding, “I unwrapped, so I could later fit it back into the same reckless, irregular ball. I flattened the sheet. The paper read:”


Lawless uses the space of the page to emphasize the speaker’s reaction:  After a short prose poem, the note’s contents fill the following page, in larger, varying fonts the words fuck and shit, over and over again, dominating nearly all the white space.

After the speaker unravels the hidden contents of the note, the poem shifts to the prose form again, ending with an epiphany that serves as a apt prelude for the rest of the book:


This is not what I expected. My hands unsteady, I wrapped it up again with fresher tape—not with the care for this world with which I had unwrapped it, but with a reckless horror of what the world was becoming,”


In the first section of the collection, “Broadax,” Lawless explores childhood memory and male rage. The first lines of this much longer prose poem admits, “I don’t like when men show anger…When Bruce Banner ‘turned,’ I would scream at the top of my lungs and run (still screaming) and I’d sob clear across the house into something soft like a blanket or my trusted purple ragdoll bunny Bop for comfort.” A few pages later, the speaker analyzes the character more and determines that he embodies a certain sexism because he’s a man with “strength of both body and mind,” but to use the strength of one, he must turn off the other. He can’t even speak when he turns, and when he excels as a scientist, he’s a “pushover” in his personal life. The effects of Bruce Banner’s toxic alter ego are only negative. After he returns to human form, he is sick and weak.

In such monstrous male characters, Lawless sees vulnerability. She analyzes the effects of Bruce Banner’s doubleness, and she even sees vulnerability in Timothy McVeigh. Of him, she writes,


On that same couch I watched the news of the Oklahoma City Bombing, which occurred the week I was in Tuscon. Shit smeared everywhere. I think of shit smeared thick onto a dick like paint to a canvass. Timothy McVeigh was blonde and poor and vulnerable. He wrote: “Go ahead, take everything I own; take my dignity. Feel good as you grow fat and rich at my expensive, sucking my tax dollars and property.” As an outsider, we can’t know for certain how he felt. Seems vulnerable to me. He also always had trouble impressing the ladies. It was, in his opinion, his biggest problem until he started thinking about Waco.It’s also safe to say that he lacked the charm of Goldilocks.


To be clear, Lawless doesn’t have sympathy for these ugly male characters. She interrogates their the roots of their identities in an attempt to learn what leads to their rage. In terms of Hulk/Banner, she considers the effect of his father killing his mother. Regarding McVeigh, she analyzes gender roles and notions of masculinity, specifically how McVeigh struggled to connect with women.

The speaker also analyzes her own rage, primarily through the relationship that she has with her sister, who she initially idolizes. The turn comes, however, when the speaker feels “a sharp flick to my right temple, and / immediately saw red, felt pain. I saw the rage of Achilles. I saw the blood rush forth / from aging, gated waters.” The sister’s decision to flick the speaker’s temple causes the speaker to punch back, but she doesn’t relent, much like the Hulk driven by his raw temper. In this moment, too, the speaker’s sister becomes smaller to her, “Wizard of Oz after / the curtain pulled open by Toto—this was no God, no Word.” Like the preface poem, this moment in the book’s first section serves as an epiphany for the speaker, namely that she, and her sister, is capable of violence.

The second section of the book, “The Private Lives of Deer,” also contains a series of prose poems that build to a larger narrative, namely an exploration of human relationships through the use of totem animals, a deer and a wolf. To describe the power dynamics at work in most relationships, Lawless creates a gendered and sexualized mythology:


When the wolf and deer look at each other, they both like what they see. The deer is a mirror giving in to his reflection. He doesn’t think of consequences. The wolf sees things as they are. When the wolf and the deer fall in love, it’s real. The wolf anticipates her lover’s every need. Some deer are selfish as fuck. But not this one. See: deer love a good narrative and love taking charge of building one. He loves wooing, preying upon the wolf, and also protecting her. The wolf changes shape into any chalice. You know, like a thesis statement. The deer is direct, a hook. The wolf understand and responds to this passion—probably on her back.


Challenging her narrative, Lawless uses the concept of the myth-building male deer, one whose story is a product of his own self-image, ideology, and motives. His thesis requires the female wolf transform into a different “thesis.” These heady concepts impart the folktale-like atmosphere with symbol and allegory.

The final section of the book, “With a Force More Brutal,” is the only section that contains individual poems with separate titles. Many of the poems center around past relationships while still addressing violence.

In “I Am Not the Sea,” the speaker recounts a past boyfriend who used a whiffle bat to knock rocks into the ocean, and at one point, hit the table where the speaker sat with friends. The speaker recalls, “He wanted his rock back. And he was embarrassed that he hadn’t / killed me.” The image of the ocean also has a duality, much like Bruce Banner, more specifically “mutual violence and docility.” The water took each rock without question, accepting, “almost pleading.” But the waves also spit back the rocks, at least the ones that didn’t dissolve in the sea. The speaker’s rage is unleashed, especially after the boyfriend hits the table and then picks up the rock and runs towards the table with a “pinched up” and “pink face.” Like many of the previous poems, “I Am Not the Sea” magnifies the experience of meeting violence with more violence.

This book is powerful and fierce. Broadax arrives cooly at the doubleness, rage, and monstrousness in each of us.


Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Poetry Prize. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles TimesWorld Literature TodayThe Paterson Literary Review, and elsewhere. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College and blogs at