Like a Cage: On Brian Tierney’s “Rise and Float”

Noah Warren considers “Rise and Float” by Brian Tierney.

By Noah WarrenMarch 3, 2022

Like a Cage: On Brian Tierney’s “Rise and Float”

Rise and Float by Brian Tierney. Milkweed Editions. 80 pages.

EPIC SIMILE STRAINS — carries a double point. It transgresses divisions we feel as absolute, even as it derives its power from bridging the void between worlds. But it does so only in feeling. The Greeks swarm like bees from a rock: for a moment, but for a moment only, the large collapses into the small, history rhymes with nature. We feel the reach, we feel the surprise of its success, and we feel the loss afterward as the distance returns.

You might identify Brian Tierney’s masterful Rise and Float with the subject matter it delicately, woundedly, explores: the many strains of suffering brought together under the insufficient language of “mental illness,” and the far-reaching webs of pain and memory they engender. Or, relatedly, with the drumbeat of deaths this book mourns — the father, Tricia, Kristen — and read the book as a metastasized elegy for people and the mess they’ve made of the world. A poem called “Anthropocene” reminds us that loss is both private and unbearably common; likewise, the book’s last words balance on a “should” that can be read in two ways. Tierney writes, “Forgive me, again, that I write you an elegy / where a love poem should be,” leaving that failure to waver between what the speaker is unable to say and what this moment in history is unable to concede. And this is also a book that testifies, in its acid-eaten American landscapes, to an intense, despairing love of the physical world that endures a little after us. Even as the searching mind in these poems wants to read places as “the material consequence / of a metaphysical truth,” as signs, in their sheer heft and strangeness these bridges and parking lots, cut-down fruit trees and traveling carnivals and condemned mental hospitals far exceed their legibility as only “consequence.” Elsewhere, the concession: “[E]ven the details die / by duration […] setting survives / erasure.”

But the book’s most distinctive feature is the experience of constant motion, as the poems enact a continuous search for religious consolation, which is sometimes called “meaning,” and sometimes “metaphysics,” a search pursued all the more sincerely because it is known to be foreclosed. That motion leaves its signature and its stage direction at every level, from the breaking of syntax across the fall of one line and its healing in the first word of the next, to the staging of surprise, as the mind encounters images drawn up from the unconscious. A line reads, “I see heaven,” and we hear its visionary confidence until the next line picks up the syntax with a scarred irony: “is not a place, it’s a concept for pain.” The center, however, of this motion and this always-failing search is Tierney’s use of simile: a bringing to bear of pressure on the device until it fissures. Instead of linking heaven and earth or the large and small, Tierney deploys, with a mercilessness, grand simile and the rhetorical tradition behind it to dramatize how the search for an elsewhere, for meaning, springs from a need that surpasses even the most convinced knowledge that one is orphaned in an irreducibly materialist universe — and, perhaps more interestingly, to help us feel how the structure of language itself, both poetic and mundane, presumes the existence of a meaningful elsewhere, a layer of reflection at which things make sense. Though the little rifts in language that these poems make visible once may have opened toward consolation, the reader sensitized by this book’s scarred and cynic knowledge will come to feel them as lures for false feeling, requiring the repeated, painful sacrifice of consolation in the name of honesty.

This is quite dark. As is the book. But even what doesn’t console may compensate, and if Rise and Float’s search for salvific meaning fails, the language, gorgeous in its precision, remains as its own testament of perseverance. It is unafraid to risk a deeper, older key; a serious earth demands serious speech. It reminds us that our lives are unevenly textured; that we will, in the course of things, encounter questions and worlds of feeling that daily experience has not prepared us for, and that our normal ways of speaking are incapable of grasping. But the circuits traveled by its similes remain, as do the connections that they create as they move: reaching vertically to great questions, slipping sideways between people, or groping back in time to keep the dead and lost places vivid.

The first poem, “Wormhole,” launches us into a spiritual crisis. A quantum Dante, with notes of Hecht’s Hill, of Keats’s Nightingale, of Glück’s October. It begins:

All winter, the house groaned as in a very great depth,
so that I often couldn’t sleep. Then, one day, as if the inverse

of lightning, silence occurred, entrusted to the hour:
I became each minute, I became every direction at once

and fled from source and definite position, and returned
to my mother in plaid widow slippers, the blue flaking hallway

at the end of which she’d wrap gifts with the funny papers,
and I felt again the weight of her life shaping my fate —

And the poem inhabits that memory before going back to a place like the one where it began:

the impatiens soured and gave a small yelp; some of them
had names I could not take with me. Night fell. The treasure

I thought at the outset was wholeness, was not wholeness.
A passing car went white as the head of a match, and was gone.

Part of what’s so striking about the poem, and about Tierney’s work in general, is the way its testamentary tone, its journalistic commitment, prepares a reader to accept a world in which abstract qualities (“source and definite position”; “wholeness”) are treated as entirely of the same reality as tangibles. This is a world in which both the beginning and the end — where we would expect concrete stability — are radically unstable; what is most vivid is the principle of linking in the middle, the Freudian hallway/wormhole itself. Its crisis is pointedly linguistic and only possible in this world where figurative language is felt in entire earnestness. The second stanza so exceeds normal ways of being and speaking that to make sense of it we have to read the epic similes “as in” and “as if” in the first stanza of this gateway poem as preparing not a lesser reality that clarifies a stable real, but a looser, more intense linguistic reality that makes us reconsider the sufficiency of what we understand in daily life as real. Ending, the poem deposits us back in a place that has the tonality of knowledge, but in fact redoubles the linguistic failure and the compensatory figurative squibbing that launched the poem. Names are unnameable, wholeness is not wholeness, and the passing car, which is so exceeded by the match simile that we forget it is a car (its syntax — “was gone” — encourages this collapse), vanishes.

In another poem, “not moss / […] not even Spanish moss / is moss”; in another, people’s expressions are “rural-sad, dissimilar, adjective adjective.” Such is the world of the book, which demands the full resources of poetic language — including its risks — as it pulls its reader through a dead, self-alienated, and pointedly American linguistic reality, even as the deadness is associated with clinical depression, and poetic heights with parainsanity. A catalog of DSM diagnoses and their terrible therapies, sprinkled throughout, instances another insufficiency of naming, and a poem called “Breakdown” moves via a wild sequence of “as” and “like” — “panels / as chipped and streaked / as my mother’s teeth”; children or horses or reigns (the referent blurs) “lying side by side / like a Civil War still life” — to curdle in a roadside carnival.

The greater the intensity, the greater the risk. Rise and Float is a book animated by religious seriousness, pulsing sometimes, however ironically, with biblical rhetoric, and therefore the payoff of an almost-persona poem such as “Judas” (“You turn away?”) or the ending of “Preamble with a Pilgrim Inside” (“Thou art small / in thy life, can you not see?”) will depend on the degree to which the reader feels the call to belief, and shared forms, as a strong haunt. At the same time, its diminished instances glow with the sad, precise beauty of their smallness, as when the younger speaker, between two mirrors, “was standing inside / a star,” or this ending of a diner poem:

On the floor, the cast

of the pastry rack
like a cage

neither open
nor closed, but nonetheless

dividing light

where it falls

It’s a landing that showcases Tierney’s strengths. Beginning in a fragment of careful observation, the poem moves into a simile that quietly takes over, until it ends, miraculously, on a verb of motion. The lines, both aerated and falling, enact the slow unfolding of thought, as it first proposes, then feels, this sensuous figure of the cage of shadow, which becomes, as it metastasizes and detaches from its referent, primarily a figure of poetry. In that moment of independence from its referent, the figure finds an idea of use for the in-betweenness (“neither open / nor closed”) figurative language is always condemned to — “dividing light,” making nuance visible. The extra space that enters the form in its last breath is at once liberatory and sad: it may be delayed, but the form will be completed, and what rises and floats will also fall. This is a book that rises despite what it knows, celebrates the float of disbelief that poetic language allows, and mourns the precise place on the linoleum where those mirages fail.


Noah Warren is the author of The Complete Stories (2021) and The Destroyer in the Glass (2016), chosen by Carl Phillips for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

LARB Contributor

Noah Warren is the author of The Complete Stories (2021) and The Destroyer in the Glass (2016), chosen by Carl Phillips for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he is pursuing a PhD in English at UC Berkeley. He lives in Oakland. His poems appear in The Paris Review, Poetry, ZYZZYVA, PEN America, New England Review, Narrative, The Southern Review, AGNI,, The Sewanee Review, and elsewhere.


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