Leaving Clean by Natalie Giarratano
Briery Creek Press, 2013; 63 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan


Natalie Giarratano’s Leaving Clean, winner of the 2013 Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry, encourages us to engage with, not run from, the complications its speakers contend with. They recall moments as varied and overwhelming as seeing an uncle’s picture of a Vietnamese boy killed in war to a great-grandmother who rolls out her breasts “like twin / red carpets between the potato salad / and rice” in order to understand how these fragments have affected their lives. When it comes down to it, we can never escape our memories; they shape us in more ways than we care to admit.

Because how can the young woman from “Forms of Forgetfulness” truly forget when a “Father / behind the mesh window told [her] to say / ten Hail Mary’s for wishing [her] mother was / dead”? Of course, she will feel “guilty / enough to say twenty.” How can the speaker in “Hustle” not feel some regret when she calls her father “a drunk” after he overturns his truck one night and crawls through four miles of muddy woods to sleep off his stupor? It’s an insult she quickly is sorry for: “But I shouldn’t call you that. / When I drink too much, I dream / about you.”

No matter how these speakers have been hurt, they also come to understand that these moments have made them tougher and wiser and their voices more difficult to ignore, a lesson that comes through in “Falling Out”:

We drown in this universe or it
disappears or we break each other
with it. But we’re meant to break
a little, to snag like nylon stockings,
pecked at by a procession of our
selves. We have to save them all…

Giarratano’s work is as tender as it is tough. We experience pain and joy, love and loss as deeply as the speakers do. We are never kept at arm’s length as these speakers remember. Sometimes it would be easier if we were, but distance rarely makes for good poetry. Leaving Clean takes us into these memories, both positive and agonizing, and connects us with the talented, curious, and insightful poet we should be eager to hear from again.