There’s no easy way to read Jeanann Verlee’s Racing Hummingbirds. Her subjects include rape, incest, death, and all manner of abusive relationships. At the same time, however, they’re not poems of accusation. Rather, they’re poems that try to make sense of the world and, more importantly, poems that strive to forgive and comfort the ghosts that haunt the victims in all of us. In “Unsolicited Advice to Adolescent Girls with Crooked Teeth and Pink Hair,” for example, one can’t help reading the poem as a desperate attempt at turning back the clock, at reaching back in time to offer advice to a former, naive self. That the endeavor can only fail — on the literal plane, anyway — only enhances the urgency of the piece, even as it underscores the poem’s relevance to burgeoning victims in the here and now. I’ve been through it, too, the poem seems to say to the girls named in its title, and I’ve made it to the other side. Or, more to the point: You’re not alone.
Of course, Racing Hummingbirds is not just about victimization. It’s also about moving on — as in “40 Love Letters,” which, as the title suggests, consists of 40 brief notes to past or potential lovers explaining in no uncertain terms why each relationship simply won’t work out. Then there’s Verlee’s uncanny ability to examine heartbreak from both sides of the equation as she does in “Beautiful: A Legend,” in which a human heart stored in a Ziploc bag signifies both the best of intentions and the worst of all possible outcomes. Verlee also has a gift for pithy turns of phrase, as in her short poem, “Men,” which deftly re-works the themes of Dorothy Parker’s “General Review of the Sex Situation” by arguing that two out of three things that men want are completely useless to her.
As visceral and searing as it is compassionate and forgiving, Racing Hummingbirds explores the darkest reaches of the human heart in order to demonstrate that although we are all flawed and damaged, we are, more than anything, capable of great beauty.