In Ruth Madievsky’s Emergency Brake, a body is never just a body. Rather, it is a looted ship, a lit match, a bedtime story, a lamp. In other moments, the body is known only by what it contains: a rope, a salted pretzel, “the sound of a penny thrown in a blender.” Madievsky’s poems put domestic objects to work, personifying and reframing embodied experience like puppets with the poet’s hands inside. And in her fiery first collection, published by Tavern Books as a Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series selection, her talent for analogy is on full display.
In addition to a metaphor-maker par excellence, Madievsky is a doctoral student in pharmacy and a research assistant in an HIV clinic in Los Angeles. Drug names and medical terms punctuate her lyrics, forcing a dialogue between her romantic and clinical inclinations and suggesting the body’s dangerous propensity for betrayal. And there is danger here: while many pages show the speaker delighting in “the naming of things,” other poems allude to moments of trauma and rage. Still, Madievsky’s speaker is too resilient, too mobile and defiant, to dwell on victimhood; as she writes in “Poem for Spring,” which first appeared in ZYZZYVA (No. 103), “the only violence / we have time for / is the violence of stars.” We spoke with Madievsky on the phone and over email about how she pulls off her aesthetic, thematic, and professional balancing acts.
ZYZZYVA: Let’s start with the title. It seems the phrase is lifted from a line in “Halloween” where the speaker describes an escapist tendency:
…how all my life
I’ve been about as carefree as a soft peach
in a pile of broken glass, my hand
always twitching toward the Ativan bottle, always ready
to pull the emergency brake…
This moment comes in the middle of an uncomfortable situation with the speaker’s boss, and I read the “emergency brake” as a kind of deus ex machina: a way to magic oneself out of a threatening setting into somewhere safer. What made you choose this metaphor for the book?
Ruth Madievsky: Originally, the book was called Shadowboxing as a nod to the four poems with that title. But “shadowboxing” sounds like exactly what you’d call a first book of poems—it has that simultaneously vague-and-specific vibe. When a friend, the poet Douglas Manuel, suggested I call the book Emergency Brake, a champagne bottle burst open in my head. Though the phrase “emergency brake” appears only once in the book, the motif of emergency brakes—in the form of intimacy, medication, associative thinking, etc.—recurs throughout. I’m taken by how those things can function at times as the emergency brake, at other times the emergency.
Z: There seem to be two prevalent forces acting on the speaker in these poems: one seems distinctly internal, in the form of obsessive, morbid thoughts (especially thoughts having to do with medicine), while the other seems more external, in the form of sexual harassment and gendered violence. There’s a sense of the body being breached but also of it being already contaminated. Can you speak about that tension?
RM: You articulated that much more clearly than I could have. I would add love and eroticism as other primary forces acting both on and within the speaker—it’s not all chemo and sex offender registries, I hope! But yes, you’ve hit on a tension that intrigues me: the ways in which the body enters the world and the world enters the body. Lungs are a core image for me because they’re maybe the best example of the constant exchange between world and body.