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A bold, startling book

As her jacket copy states, Shira Erlichman was “born in Israel, raised in Massachusetts, (and) now lives in Brooklyn.” She’s also been known to give readings in the North Country. Erlichman last visited the region in 2017, reading poems which now scaffold her debut collection “Odes to Lithium,” out last fall from Alice James Press. This is a bold, startling book that mixes the directness of the ode with strong doses of fragment and collage.

In her acknowledgements, Erlichman notes a few international influences (Pablo Neruda, Rumi, and Wislawa Szymborska), and her collection displays the sincerity, forthright utterance and vision evident in those poets. “Odes to Lithium” is not a crafty book, or one tangled in its own pretensions to art. It is honest and quirky. It represents a highly individual voice and approach to the world. And for all of us who share experience with the mental states she describes, it is a powerful testament to a living gracefully under uncertain circumstances.

In addition to its plain integrity, “Odes to Lithium” is beautifully tactile. Erlichman intersperses poems with her own drawings, which offer a quiet, oblique dialogue to the written work. This dialogue recalls another self-illustrated collection: “The Book of Embraces,” by the Uruguayan journalist and printmaker, Eduardo Galeano. Like Galeano, Erlichman uses her images to counterpoint the surreal and hyper-real worlds of her poems.

And Erlichman’s pictures are strange — many show figures with heads made of fabric, or with blank, or punctured, space for faces. She plays with subtle hatchure, stippling and insistent expanses of full pigment to vary her shading, patterns that sound like the “chicken wire undulated behind my lids” of her poems. This is a book of changing light, and the drawings rotate and revise the mosaic of poems and stories they inhabit.

Also like Galeano, Erlichman builds a challenging, narrative surrealism. What do we make of her secret love affair with a long-dead railroad worker, eating cereal around an iron rod protruding from his skull? That poem (“Thirteen Ways of Looking at Phineas Gage”) uses notably flat, almost reportorial diction, leaving the particulars even stranger. Or, what to make of her insistent address TO her medication? What reality, or whose, have we entered? These poems speak in many voices, though with a unifying, three-dimensional vision.

Erlichman is minutely aware of those hidden symmetries that flash through her this work. Her poems regard subjects from multiple sides, and make full use of the book as physical artifact. A piece like “Cliff” accelerates as it moves down the page, each line shorter than the last, each enjambment building the speaker’s urgency. In her striking poem “On This End” (which consists of redacted correspondence between speaker and mother), she separates each phrase and displays them in reverse. This unconventional arrangement violates the letters’ semantics, preferring instead to visualize the reiterative probings of memory.

This collection a wide variety in format — from compact prose paragraphs to sprawling, polyphonic sample tracks — and the breadth is impressive. Each piece contributes to a strong whole, with all the fearless risk of a debut collection.

If you like the sound of this work, Erlichman also offers online instruction through her “Freer Form” classes — what she calls a “portable creativity school.” She gives both one-on-one critique, and month-long group classes through the “Surreal Life” platform. Visit her website, officialshira.com, for more information on her reading schedule, to sign up for her e-zine or to check out online classes.

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