H.R. Webster’s What Follows is a book of abolitionist love poems. It’s about the long fight of love, elegiac love, about loving the rough, bruised contours of love, about the shedding of systems that are not love. What makes us good, Webster argues, is not our purity or our fear. These poems make room for a radical, unwieldy, contradictory way of being, a life that is often painful. Here also is the relentless desire with which the natural world pulses: flowers, honey, the animal smell of butter, the brutal birth of a calf. In “His Master’s Voice,” the speaker tells a dog, “this is not what the world should look like / but I don’t know how to fix it.” Webster’s book traces the shape of the world, its jagged cruel edges, its peripheral beauty, and also its ugly, misshapen goodness.
“What if fear of punishment is not what makes us good?” Webster asks, picking apart what she’s called elsewhere “the carceral logic” that is applied to sex and love in the name of sex positivity. “Who would I be without punishment?” she asks in “My Mother Says ‘I’m Going to Flush the Toilet Now.’” The punishment she describes is ordinary and constant; it happens while existing in public and in private, and it looks like fear, like being followed, raped, and silenced. It looks like a man at the gas station telling the speaker that it’s clear by the tattoo on her leg that she wants to be hunted. Webster names this punishment and the simultaneous exhaustion in this naming.
In “Occlusion,” Webster describes the invisible flaws in gemstones that throw shadows: “Look at the stain / in the diamond. It’s not the thing itself, / but what’s left of the light that was swallowed.” Here is the stain and its shadow, the pain and exhaustion of being hunted by violent men likely suffering their own pain. This violence—the stain and its shadow—is at once personal, relational, and carceral.
But what is remarkable about Webster’s speaker is that her body wants to continue to be, despite—despite human frailty, despite state-sanctioned cruelty as a default response to human frailty. A brave body, the speaker’s a “gutsy little zombie,” existing on this precarious knife’s edge. She believes that “maybe the knife is my love language.”
“I like to make men love me / with my body. But I am always afraid. Afraid / and leaden with power” she writes in “Scaphism.”
“Because the police are murderers,” she writes in “June,” a relentless anthem, one of the most powerful of the book, “My body wants to continue to be.”
She continues, leaden with power: “Because my body wants to continue to be, it carried me through the streets it carried me over the chained gate of the parking lot over the hedge and the day lilies in the park although I crushed them yes I crushed some lilies with my feet because I could not see but could hear the men behind me.”
How do we hold suffering, both ours and others’, and survive, Webster asks? Many do not survive. Death is our inheritance. The second of two titular poems begins with an epigraph from Anne Carson’s Antigonick:
“Ruin arrives / ruin does not leave / it comes tolling over the generations / it comes rolling the black night salt up from the ocean floor and all your thrashed coasts groan.”
This second titular poem is the most delicate, a black metal dirge, concerned with the physicality of grief. As the speaker is “busying my hands with the dirt of your body,” mold and disease are threaded through all that can be touched. Like a secret, like epigenetic memory, the First World War’s dead intrude—images of The Massacre of the Innocents and boys drowning in mud at Passchendaele. Throughout the poem, perfunctory sexts intrude, and with them, the grasping nature of grief.
But throughout What Follows, Webster is talking about love. She points out the tendrils of intimacy, tenderness, and pleasure, which grow through and around our flawed systems—because of these things, and despite these things.
In “June,” after a protest against police violence, the speaker is being bathed in vegetable oil by a lover to remove pepper spray from her face:
“Because we have this in common: apples eaten past the core, chicken bones stacked sucked on the plate, you scoop handfuls of oil from the shower floor and into my heart, my brows, my lashes and eyes. I hold the arches of your feet in my hands. Your chest pressed against my back. Sweet wet machine, the heart, the oil begins to tug.”
What Follows is tired and alive, raw and delighting, sick and sexy. “Gutsy little zombie,” indeed. These are poems about an abolitionist love, the emancipatory effects of which ripple out from the intimacy of a shower stall and into the world.
“Because Nina Simone said it could look like no fear,” Webster writes in “June.” Simone was talking about freedom. But, love, too, could look like no fear. What is love without that kind of freedom?