When a home loses its ability to comfort, a person can be left not just searching for a place of safety but also asking what safety really means. Stephen Furlong’s debut chapbook, What Loss Taught Me, approaches such seemingly intractable topics with courage and grace. Taking on experiences of abuse and loss, Furlong shifts adeptly between artful indirectness and direct testimony to grapple with what it means to tell his story after serious harm.
What Loss Taught Me springs backward, forward, and laterally in time, seeking for the simplest possible formulation of the problems it considers. In “The Game,” which first appeared in A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017), Furlong redraws some of his most painful childhood moments in three terse, nightmarish scenes. It begins with the uncanny experience of being targeted in an apparently safe environment: “Trust comes together as family for a meal. A / shared smile. Eyes that focus on you, only. A / hand brushes your hair back.” Through carefully stating what exactly is most painful about these memories, Furlong gives a printed form to the shape-shifting adversaries created by trauma. The poem ends with a fourth moment that could be from years ago or yesterday:
Still. Your head rewinds, replays. Always on
Through this close-mapping of pain, Furlong shows us the terrain he moves through, “A place of shadow,” on his way towards safety. The image of an Everlast punching bag recurs throughout the work. There’s a feeling of years of steady practice underneath Furlong’s sharply executed poetic moves. Furlong is pugilistic in his phrasing: precise and devastating. He works his subjects like a boxer works an opponent—feinting, jabbing, then landing a punch at an unexpected angle. Through subtle shifts in emphasis, he pivots to new and surprising perspectives. In “After I Told,” he investigates himself for evidence: “After I told, I still felt fingerprints / when I showered. / These days, I lift off your fingerprints / as evidence of my survival.” In “The After Years, or Learning to Love My Own Voice,” Furlong first considers the challenge of speaking, on the outpouring of breath, then nimbly swivels to the challenge of taking in air in order to speak: “I live in a place where / it hurts to breathe.” Furlong floats effortlessly from scene to scene, but intuits where to stand his ground on insight gained through effort and pain:
“Echo. My fears.
Presenting them as a
punching bag from a ceiling,
existing as chained reality.
Shorelines, and I am the sea
the strength inside
unmeasurable. These words will
escape from me,
They have to move on.”
The use of blank space within lines suggests something missing or taken, but also saltatory thought, attempts to leap over barriers. Furlong’s meditations don’t always end with rounded conclusions, but instead with indications of progress, a sense for having left where he came from but still being in transit somewhere else. At times, they move tentatively towards joy. There is the joy of finding a good teacher, celebrated in “Introduction to Creative Writing”—“You taught me words could help me love/—again, I had doubts.” There is a reaching for a true home, one that is honest about the past. Through examining who and what can no longer provide consolation, Furlong works his way toward another, better place. “Into the Blur and the Worry” takes up an automotive metaphor for explaining the way one’s heart works to another:
“To get her
to understand, I have
to get my hands dirty—
blood and oil tend
not to mix.”
It’s a first chapbook that has velocity, that points toward numerous fruitful paths for Furlong’s future work. “[R]ecovery has no deadlines, / just endless questions, especially / around the holidays”, he writes. In asking questions of memory, growth, and what relationship they ought to have to each other, Furlong moves from places of entrapment to places of possibility, and he is generous enough to share his ways there with us.
Conor Gearin is a writer from St. Louis living in Boston. His work has appeared in The Atlantic online, The Millions, Chariton Review, New Scientist, Mochila Review, and The New Territory, where he is the features editor. His essay on wild places in developed landscapes will appear in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019.