Robin Rosen Chang: A Review of Lara Egger’s “How to Love Everyone and Almost Get Away With It”

“[I]f the heart had a bucket list, what would be on it?” askes the speaker in Lara Egger’s debut full-length poetry collection How to Love Everyone and Almost Get Away with It, winner of the University of Massachusetts Press’s 2021 Juniper Prize for Poetry. The speaker then wonders how much love the heart can hold. It turns out that the heart beating throughout this book is capacious and generous. It cruises between reality and fantasy, navigating a course that touches upon love in all its messy manifestations. It knows compassion, affection, desire, temptation, doubt, disappointment, and regret. This book delves deeply and without pretense into all matters of the heart.

Egger’s collection opens with “Dead Reckoning,” a poem that sets the stage for the rest of the book. The speaker in this poem acknowledges being reckless, a condition she blames on moonquakes. In no time, however, she admits that many of her claims—whether they’re as benign as one side of her tongue being sweeter than the other or as significant as the statement that one day she will confess everything and earn forgiveness—are disputable. We are thus introduced to a speaker who is open, tuned in to her thoughts and feelings, and cognizant of her own subjectivity. Her awareness is further revealed in her statement that “[t]o calculate one’s position by way of the stars/is dead reckoning,” a condition she equates with “opening a book of poems to a random page/and pretending the words were written for you.” That you at the end of the line is pregnant. It can refer to the speaker, a lover, a stranger, a friend, a parent, or even the reader. Moreover, it is brilliantly placed right before the final sentence: “During a moonquake/even the most faithful compass/points in the direction of any nearest heart.” This implicates everyone: All of us are vulnerable to the whims of our sometimes-capricious hearts, and to happenstance.

Some of the thrill of reading this incredible collection comes from Egger’s mastery in making bold statements. In A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry, Gregory Orr explains that authoritative statements about an experience or feeling can delight or disturb the reader, and they can also provoke us to reexamine our beliefs. We can see this in “The Igneous Hours.” The speaker, pondering when things went wrong, startles the reader with the assertion that it could have been “the night I was mistaken for a prostitute,/and felt, for the first time, I had a shot at beauty.” This is the type of line Egger delivers throughout the book—daring in its honesty and powerful in the way it divulges something utterly unexpected. It also underscores the need and yearning to be loved that is always present.

While desire is one of the collection’s ongoing concerns, so are pain and regret. In “Eleven Days in Alicante,” we find the speaker recalling a former lover who was “all jaguar—listo.” She meditates on the idea of “brotando,” which is described as blooming and “flowering, budding, opening–/glowing, as with vigor,/as with pain.” The only single-line stanzas in the poem shift the focus to the need for forgiveness. “I want him               to know I’m sorry.”  The blank space in this line enacts the void and conflict between desire and remorse. Experiences with pain and the need for forgiveness appear in other poems as well.

Some poems in the book reach further into the speaker’s past, providing important background. In “Stille Nacht,” the speaker’s father, described as a guitarist “at heart,” plays the accordion while the speaker as a child is caroling with other children. With precision and distance, the speaker states,  “The accordion is the perfect instrument for someone/who descended from a line of executioners,//its bellows modeled on the efficiency of the guillotine.” The image of those bellows is resonant, and the accordion as a metaphor for an executioner and the executioner as a metaphor for the father is devastating. Another arresting metaphor occurs when the speaker refers to a secret that “bloomed” in her like ripe fruit when she was a child and had discovered a letter from the father’s lover. She forges an image of the father strapping his accordion onto her and teaching her “how to press the buttons/and squeeze at the same time” while the mother “sugarcoated the Lebkuchen.” The relevance of the father returns in “Museum of the Heart” when the speaker ponders whether we inherit the way we love.

Egger’s keen humor and wordplay create a lightness that heightens the complexity of the collection’s concerns. In “If You’re Anything Like Me,” the speaker cites glitter glue as a healthy way “to enjoy a relationship/with pain,” and in “We All Get Turned Around,” she asks “[w]ho put the end/in crescendo, the over in lover?” Egger also makes huge leaps that allow the mind to take off. For instance, the poem “S.O.S.” begins:

          Mondays the heart needs a parachute;
          Tuesdays, a life jacket.
          This man’s is black and blue.
          Despite the heartburn, we volunteer
          to walk through Calamity’s revolving door.

The first two lines produce the expectation that the poem will be a litany of the heart’s daily needs. This is upended and complicated in the third line when we don’t know if it’s the life jacket or the man’s heart that is black and blue. Nor do we know who “this man” is. In the fourth line, heartburn and a we who voluntarily submit to catastrophe suddenly appear. The poem’s leaps continue—to a blind baseball team, a headless orchestra, a dog that dreams and then “the anguish of clouds.” A few lines later, we have Egger’s wordplay: “In some languages, flamenco is an anagram/of arrythmia…,” then a woman with three arms and gods who “mistake our shipwrecks/for symphonies.” At the end of the poem, we are trying “to sink/the melody but the melody/always swims.”  These leaps make the poem wildly exciting and create the possibility for many different interpretations.

Music also pulses vibrantly throughout Egger’s writing. Consider these opening lines of the title poem: 

          I always thought a wolverine was some smaller version of a wolf.
          I was wrong about that. I was wrong to rely on envelopes
          as synonyms for surprise, sunrise as shorthand
          for peaches; wrong to expect my damage
          wouldn’t be permanent…

Listen to the strong beats propelling the first line, and the alliterative w, v, and s sounds in the next few lines. Notice the repetition and stress that falls on the word “wrong.” Later in the poem, the speaker refers to herself as “a person with loose ethics” and tells an unspecified “you” that she may have been wrong to express her love, even if she meant it. Despite her doubts about the past, the speaker resolves to continue loving. The poem ends with these gorgeous lines, replete with the music from the alliterative p’s in periwinkle and purple; the assonance in blue, innuendo, and even afternoon; the slant rhyme between swings and leans; and the repetition of nonetheless.

          Here is my karaoke heart. We still don’t agree
          whether the color periwinkle swings purple
          or leans more blue. Nonetheless, innuendo. Nonetheless,
          I’d gladly spend the afternoon revising my misdemeanors with you.

This book has a lot of energy, partly a result of Egger’s leaps and music. But it also comes from the fact that the book doesn’t have section breaks, which allow its poems to accrete and create momentum. This forward drive is modulated by a sequence of “New New Guide” poems inspired by Kenneth Koch’s “A New Guide.” Interlarded throughout the collection, these condensed observations about life are in conversation with surrounding poems. Take “A New New Guide to Mobility,” a twist on the two-trains-leaving-the-station-at-the-same-time problem. Though the plush train for the rich and the crowded slow train for the poor have the same destination, the speaker says they are unlikely to ever pass each other. This poem is followed by “Souvenir,” which considers the past and meditates on the idea of inevitability, where “[y]ou get on the plane or you don’t—/either way, someone’s hemorrhaging.”   

A profound desire to love and be loved, despite what this entails, permeates this collection, as do feelings centered on empathy and kindness. In “Boy George Is My Spirit Animal,” the speaker says, “Sometimes I fuck strangers because I want them/to feel beautiful,” which reminds us of the line in “The Igneous Hours” when the speaker discloses she felt beautiful after being mistaken for a prostitute. The ache for love is evident in many poems. The body wants everything, the speaker says in “Please Don’t Leave Me Unattended.” But it’s about more than just the body. In the book’s final poem, “With These Wings,” the speaker offers this as she casts her eye on crows:

          Imagine the burden of flight, of having failed when their mothers
          sent them out into the world, saying With these wings you can do anything.

          As for permission to touch their feathers.
          The residue on your fingers will feel like empathy.

How to Love Everyone and Almost Get Away with It is a stunning and humane collection. The love and empathy that suffuse it slips into your own heart, cracking it open in new and astonishing ways. This book will not only challenge your way of seeing the world, but it’ll also change the way you think about love. 



Read More