Anne Carly Abad’s We’ve Been Here Before reaches out to our others. It uses speculation to break through the isolation of modernity, and allows its readers to make a connection that goes beyond mere knowledge or awareness. Abad outlines this project in her foreword: here, the figure of the fairy or robot or ghost will become unignorable and cannot be assimilated. At their best, the poems in this book achieve exactly this—by, as Abad puts it, allowing us to “suspend the why.” The fantastical, the “other,” simply is—and that is enough to permit us to commit both to it and its reflection in our daily lives.
The collection’s greatest successes are in the places where it drops the reader directly into its worlds, so that a simple encounter with difference is tangible and immediate. This is most effective in poems like “Between,” which capture a rich and evocative single moment. In these pieces, Abad’s language shimmers and solidifies the world in doing so, telling us of the abandoned car where
morning glory blooms dressed
its rust wounds—protection
that wouldn’t hold against
this inevitable night when
the moon wasn’t special nor full. (p. 64)
This image comes directly to life, its power waiting in that line break after “protection” and in the impending collapse balanced in that moon, neither “special nor full.” Because Abad does not tell us more about this car than that it sits in a parking lot between two trees, “long enough for people to whisper / Someone died in there” (p. 64), it really lives on its own. The ghost in the car, still and haunting, is the whole point, and we are left to consider our own ghosts—so that when, at the end, the car’s windshield cracks, we are closer to our personal hauntings for watching this poetic one.
Others of Abad’s successes also come from her commitment to throwing us headfirst into her worlds. The poems built on the sorts of images that so grab the attention in “Between,” however, are only one way (though my favorite one) that the book achieves this effect. “The Choosing of the Babaylan” highlights how some of these poems deploy a series of modes at once. This poem describes the creation, or selection, of a babaylan as she experiences it. It opens by placing us directly in the world of traditional Filipino spiritual practice: “The song of her choosing comes / to her soul as it becomes / the strings of a kudlung” (p. 67). Never italicized, marked, or explained, the particularities of setting are presented exactly as they are. This, in turn, reminds the reader of the potential that speculation holds—the acceptance of the alien and the ghost and the robot is also the acceptance of the instrument of which American readers may never have heard, of the vast variety that characterizes everyday experience. “The Choosing of the Babaylan” further develops that insistence as it continues, capturing a unique experience of feminine power and transformation:
She may birth herself through sacred ordeal,
though she mustn’t forget
not all will be born;
only she who returns
may share in her abyan’s power
and claim her true name:
Babaylan (p. 68)
This ending takes us into the choosing, into transformation. The reader is given the opportunity to look on as the babaylan embraces her power, and knowledge of that power is part of the gift. It is hers and we are lucky enough to see her come into it. Once again, we are free to sit with this other way of being, not just in the babaylan’s magical power, but also in all her particularity. She is not just any magician with any power. She is this one, with the powers given by her abyan—the spirit that is the source of the supernatural power, and which, like the woman and the instrument, is perhaps unfamiliar to Abad’s western readers, but is here sufficiently present for them to come to know. Similarly, the specificity of this woman, the babaylan, is part of her power and part of the chance the poem offers. We know, from the title, that though “not all will be born”—that not everyone will be able to reach out beyond themselves—making it over and through the ordeal is an opportunity to grow. She can self-actualize in claiming her magical power, reminding the reader of the importance of her independence and of their own opportunity to build both independence and community by acknowledging and truly living with difference. The subject of the poem embraces the otherworldly through the difficulty of the ordeal, just as the reader is called upon to embrace the other.
Throughout the book, Abad is acutely aware that the estranging power of speculation—the newness and strangeness that makes something a fantasy—can provide a chance to bridge the alienation that it seems to produce, and she takes advantage of this not just in the imagery and narratives of the poems, but in their very language, to powerful effect. This is especially obvious in the poems where form is tied closely to language—especially those centered on robotic others like “X:\Users\AndroidX>start eden.exe,” “Gingerbread(board) Baby,” and “Final Thoughts of a Companion (Beta).” These poems embrace the language of computer code and its affiliates, breaking down words and manufacturing abbreviations to produce a distinctly science-fictional language that transforms and refigures not only the world of the poem, but our understanding of the world beyond it. “Final Thoughts of a Companion (Beta)” is particularly effective in this regard, using its robot voice to highlight the ways in which connection is so often used and discarded, especially by those with greater power than their companions.
But the speculative language is not limited to those most obvious robot voices. Many poems are full of wordplay and innovative vocabulary, surprises for the attentive reader. I was particularly struck by “A Philosophy of Chairs” and “Ceramics” in this regard, as they shared the most distinctive single linguistic display. “A Philosophy of Chairs,” developing the relationship between the chair and those who use it, declares that the chair is “inviting / all who see in it to rest and have intercourse / with corporal memory” (p. 5). “Ceramics” shows us “The executioners [who] grill letters and sigils / into every corporal surface” (p. 22), articulating the pressure of beauty and being, which are both under social surveillance. These moments stood out for the use of “corporal,” with its associations with punishment and violence, where you might expect “corporeal,” a barer “bodily” that carries only the contrast between the body and the mind/soul. By resisting expected language, these poems move the reader out of what comfort they may have reached with the speculative form. The linguistic play is its own newness, echoing the alterity of the worlds Abad produces. The slight jarring of the unexpected word reminds the reader that this is another world, that the differences between our world and the poem’s, between individuals without our world, must be sat with, and connections must be made without assimilation.
Despite all the book’s successes, though, the overall effect is not as strong as I had hoped. The book is quite substantial for a collection of poems, coming in at over 150 pages. Like any collection, the pieces are not all equally appealing to every reader, but my reading experience was more uneven than expected. The poems that didn’t work for me felt a bit under-worldbuilt. On the whole, I think the decision to allow the worlds of the poems to stand on their own, without excessive explanation, was the right move. However, sometimes, like in “The Assessment,” the reader is left unsure what is happening and where. When we read of the so-called testers “striking every inch of her / with the yardstick of humanity / that even they cannot attain” (p. 6), while it is clear what the poem is thinking about—the regimes of control and regulation that police normativity imposes across differences in neurotype, race, gender, and ability—it is not clear what the speculative setting is or who the “her” may be. Is she a robot? A fairy? A spirit? Although this confusion does not prevent the reader from finding the poem’s positions, it is a bit distracting, especially when not bolstered by the kind of immersive imagery that characterizes some of the other poems.
Even some of the pieces that don’t obscure their settings obscure their events in ways that undermine the immediacy that characterizes the whole collection. Poems like “The Distance of Stars” raise more questions than they answer. Why would the planet of 55 Cancri e have been “recession-hit” (p. 57) and why would the woman born there have scoffed at a diamond? We are told that “one who crossed over / to our dimension / has finally awoken” (p. 57) and I found myself wanting to know where he was from; why he had slept; why did they “measure space / in light years” where he was from (p. 57); what he meant when he asked the people “here” why they didn’t. Had he read the rest of the poem? Hung up on those details of world and events, it can be hard to focus on the poem’s core assertion (well worth reflecting on) that “the distance of stars” is all of these things, measured in our differences, rather than the space itself. Ultimately, perhaps my questions aren’t important. Still, while the poem’s central conceit remains intriguing, that moment of distraction can lessen the impact.
Moreover, this spareness in the worlds can and does work. “Between,” as a particular favorite, doesn’t provide much more detail about its events than “The Distance of Stars”—and that is, in many ways, its greatest strength. What this does show, though, is that the very strength of every poem being a separate world, provided in just enough detail to grab the reader, means that if a poem fails to do so, it feels unfinished. The consistency of the thematic and stylistic dimensions of the book further highlights this feeling, since the poems simultaneously approach the same themes in many ways and yet do not coalesce into a cycle of connected pieces. As a result, the reader is invited to compare, to pick and choose the poems that work for them—allowing the discovery of new favorites, but also making the book itself hard to hold onto as a unified work.
In the end, We’ve Been Here Before did not become more than the sum of its parts. Those parts are, by and large, excellent, but I wish the collection had been more tightly unified—either through a smaller selection of poems that represented the variety in the poet’s imagination (my favorites could easily have filled a shorter full-length collection) or through sections or other structural devices to encourage the reading-together of poems interested in similar topics, worlds, and themes, rather than the reading of them against each other. That being said, one of the benefits of such a long collection is that there are ample opportunities for each reader to find their particular instances of resonance within Abad’s skillful and thought-provoking imaginings. I recommend taking We’ve Been Here Before slowly, reading a poem now and then, perhaps even out of order, marking your favorites as you go. And at the same time, mark the ways the book encourages and guides you towards alterity in your own life, towards deliberate and substantive connection, rather than mere knowledge or equivalence.