REVIEW: McGavin’s “Branches” brings to light vulnerability of youth

There are ways people can remember and acknowledge their younger selves. It happens when reading through childhood diaries, eyes poring over pages filled with smudged pen ink and messy doodles. It happens when looking through childhood toys, fingers grazing the fur of worn-out stuffed animals and squeaky old toy cars. It happens when looking over family photo albums, eyes staring into a person who had no idea what life would become and reminiscing over family trips. It’s moments like these where, for however brief a moment, a person can go back in time and recognize who they used to be. It’s a moment that poet Rhiannon Mcgavin managed to make into a collection of poetry. In McGavin’s book Branches, she revises the poems that she wrote as a teenager, allowing them to become everything that she didn’t have ability to write when she was younger. Through each stanza, McGavin chases after the intangible, gracefully capturing the world as she saw it when she was on the brink of adulthood. Each poem is a testament to what she felt at that age, a bittersweet homage to being young and fragile and hopeful.

McGavin doesn’t let one whisper or shout or murmur of her adolescent musings leave the sanctity of her journals untouched, using lush imagery to illustrate the world of Los Angeles as she saw it then: golden and hazy and beautifully chaotic. Each word on the page takes on a life of its own,  perfectly encapsulating the wilderness that lurks beneath the concrete and lives in the palm trees. No longer is it just a city, but a place of myths, where a person can embrace an abstract version of themselves without fear of judgement. It’s place where the sunshine hazily beams through cotton-candy clouds to halo everything in a golden glow. It’s a place of tumbling bushes of jasmine and rose and marigold that the city cradles between its city lines.The delicate and thoughtful nature of the descriptions allow each line to be treated with reverence and a certain amount of holiness even, validating the emotions McGavin felt at one point in her life. It’s this very softness and respect that she gives to her younger self that gives the reader an oddly comforting sensation when reading her poems, akin to the feeling of being held.

Excerpt from “Girls”

street -worth of neon just before west Hollywood

splayed two-dimension with baby skin and

maraschino cherries     which         our bus drove past

180 mornings a year, as the fastest way to school

where we laugh at Sex:            in the dictionary n draw

GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS

Still, when McGavin wants to, her words can pierce through the page, each one becoming something sharp and severe and dramatic. When touching on violence and abuse against women, McGavin doesn’t shy away from creating a more silent tone, one where a quiet longing for the bloodshed to come to an end is threaded in between the lines that are made up of harsh verbs that cut up the tongue. However heavy the subject matter, McGavin still maintains a note of hopefulness, with even the darkest poems considering a potential for change. The frequent images of the natural world allow the narrator to be aware that regrowth is always possible, that one day winter will be over and the flowers will burst through the ground once again. It’s this very imagery that doesn’t bring the reader into the world as it is, or how she sees it now, but as how she used to see it, when she was 17 and always hoping for a better day.

Excerpt from “the creeps”

but it’s why i’m afraid of men

and the wood grown to protect them

because yesterday

i wanted to believe the trees near your house

have never clapped with a gavel

but under your nails

you let the dirt of your fathers rot

Even though it’s the essence of youth that McGavin masterfully captures, its ancient techniques that she uses. She shapes her words into the mold of Shakespearean sonnets, each one taking a strict form that harkens back to the more archaic ways poetry was written. Still, that doesn’t stop her from using language and situations that are inherently modern and take place on top of concrete pavement. It’s in her words that McGavin frees herself, holds herself untethered and free to all language can do and convey. In fact, the stark contrast between form and language create a meeting point for the past and present. McGavin reveres the old ways of writing while being unabashedly contemporary, revelling in the new evolutions in language. Interestingly enough, this meeting of what was and what is parallels the action of her revising these poems.

What allows her to wholly capture her adolescence, though, is nothing other than the sound in her poems, each piece guiding the reader to how she would have read it. Finding her roots in spoken word poetry, McGavin is no stranger to the power poetry readings hold. It’s an art form that allows the poet to take agency of their words, forcing them to exhale between every line so that the audience internalizes their work. Through a steady attention to the way she wants her poems to sound off the page, McGavin expertly brings this experience into the written word. Frequent punctuation forces the readers to take a breath, to stare at the words on the page before starting a new line. Her writing commands the audience, each period and comma and line-break is a direct order to understand and witness what she felt, to fully taste each word she writes. Each punctuation mark in a line is a signal to wait for the words to sink in, to witness Los Angeles as she had witnessed it, to see how she sweetly unveils the following line. It’s this power that she holds over her words and how her emotions are interpreted, that make her poems a triumph of the written word.

Excerpt from “Coda”

Los Angeles is all the waves at once.

It seems a fair trade for drowning out the stars. I know

there’s a wall near my house

that has painted over slurs so often, the brick looks flesh.

The sun ripens as many bullets as tomatoes; the helicopters

fly lower. We planted perennials

and kept growing with that dip

In our front steps like an inhale, like a cupped hand,

it’s where the rain pools when we get it,

when such blessings come in beams.

By writing Branches, McGavin was able to communicate with her younger self, allowing her to say all the things that she didn’t have the tools to say when she was younger. The book builds a bridge between the past and the present, between what has passed and what will come to pass. Through evocative imagery and words that chase the intangible, McGavin doesn’t shy away from what she felt at that age, she embraces it. She takes it all. She captures each bit of desperation and sadness and hopefulness she had once scribbled away in a diary and devours it fully. In this way, she explores her roots, untangling the messy brambles of her adolescence to learn why her branches grew this way.

Ashita Wagh is a pop culture critic for Oswego East’s online news magazine the Howl

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