In Which I Play The Runaway by Rochelle Hurt

The Frantic Feeling of Leaving

by David Fairbanks

Rochelle Hurt's poems seamlessly slip from one persona to another, regularly shifting contexts without compromising voice or disorienting the reader. It's a technique that imbues In Which I Play The Runaway (Barrow Street Press, 2016) with a certain kind of excitement: the frantic feeling of leaving somewhere, of abandoning something, of running from someone. Whether inhabiting the recurring persona of Dorothy Gale or her more nebulous speakers (the Runaway, Cheat, Wife, Sideshow, etc.), Hurt's poems breathe with the cold determination required for survival.

He thinks you have something
to prove, too. Kiddo, he says.
He thinks he’ll win you.
But he doesn’t know you
are counting his steps, licking
your cowlick with vinegar,
twining his grin into a noose.

Invoking The Wizard of Oz in "Dorothy and Uncle Henry" (above) could conjure a sense of nostalgia for some, but Hurt's poetry recalls the darkness of the setting, compelling readers to investigateor at least be aware ofthe shadows cast by Americana. While I have no doubt Hurt could write a book of engaging Oz poems, In Which I Play The Runaway benefits from a wider lens.

"In Which I Play The Runaway" establishes something of a framework, vaulting from "girls strewn like tinsel" to "girls looking / for a house to stuff themselves in" to "some ranch house / with walls thin as a mother's dress, / long emptied of men and closing on me" and eventually landing on "And how she loved it, the sin itself / a new kind of homelessness." The titular poem presents just some of the many motivations a woman could have for packing her things, stepping out the door, and never looking back. Hurt takes that momentum and moves from speaker to speaker, connecting them through the injurious worlds they live in, the patriarchal societies they live under.

Winter smears the horizon with silt and the days drop
to us like shrunken plums. This is when tongues grow heavy

in their toothy caves. Call it instinct. Call it shame. Either way,
I slip rocks into my pockets before I go out. Just in case.

In the schoolyard, buzzards hover and boys on bikes
sew a circle in the sleet around me. They stitch their names

into my skirt, say baby, they know me—in parentless rooms
where my name unravels at my ankles, and crumbs of words

These first four couplets of "Self-portrait in Nightmute, Alaska" paint a kind of rural desolation that feels both familiar and unique: nights come early; days are draped in gray; the next morning promises fruit, but it is withered and sad; buzzards and boys prey on the unguarded. It's a world no one could blame you for fleeing.

In Which I Play The Runaway won the 2015 Barrow Street Book Prize and is available now.