Reviewed by Amanda Auchter
Julie E. Bloemeke’s debut collection of poems, Slide to Unlock (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020) had prescient timing in its publication. The world was enmeshed in a pandemic, people were beginning to be locked down in their homes, and for many, the only modes of communication with their friends and family was through electronic devices. Slide to Unlock deftly explores how these modes of communication both enable us to connect to one another, but how they can lead us into emotional and spiritual disconnect as well.
The idea of connectivity begins with the first section, Dialing In. In the collection’s title poem, Bloemeke writes, “We are undone / by the promise of resolution, // temptation.” In Slide to Unlock, Bloemeke carefully explores this state of being undone by too much and never enough — too much communication, but never enough resolution, never enough solace from words either on a screen or in a letter. The poems expertly move from moments in time, miles crossed — from teenage years in the 80s where communication is “the receiver // waiting / in its cradle // where an answer / could remain” (“Rotary Ode”) to the lovelorn streets of Venice and Paris looking for “So many combinations / of we, or us, sealed in the vow of click” (“Lock Bridge, 2008”).
Bloemeke uses the medium of calling as a means to explore love and desire, of the humanness of attempting to echolocate one who was there once, but now exists in the ether of memory. She acknowledges in the poem “Messenger”:
We talk to the ghost surface, will a reply,
a buzz, a beacon,
anything to fend off
the dark we create.
This carrying of voice and its agency weaves throughout the collection. Bloemeke utilizes the language of phone communication as a means to explore what it means to be faithful both in a marriage and to one’s self. In the poem “You’re Breaking Up,” Bloemeke writes, “Only the phone with its curls / and no face would give us enough / courage to say to a mouthpiece: it’s over.”
These poems are intimate, honest, and at times, searing. In “The Call,” the speaker admits that “My husband never left me / hanging,” implying that other lovers have. The speaker goes on to say her “faulty wires” are mended by her husband’s love: “He kisses me for each call you never / made.”
Both the husband and the unidentified “you” weigh heavily in the world these poems build. The poem “Electronic Mail” explores the intimacy created even in the least appearing intimate of places (email and text message). Bloemeke notes that intimacy can be found anywhere, that it is the mind and the heart that is the cultivator of desire. She writes that, “I tell myself / these are only letters, pushed through /anonymous keys,” while simultaneously the speaker of “Electronic Mail” lets the one who is desired into her car, coat, and sheets. The car, coat, and sheets, here being the cell phone in the hand, the constant line of possible communication and the what if of desire one can easily touch.
In the devastating poem, “Letter to My Husband,” which deftly utilizes the epistolary form to explores themes of infidelity and healing, Bloemeke shows how, “those quiet nights” when the speaker “listened / to the siren calls of memory” serves only to become her “foul habit / of seeking what if for fulfillment.”
Bloemeke is smart to use the epistolary form, here. This form serves to mark a stark contrast between the “other” in poems such as “Email from Museo Correr” and “Self Shot,” where the speaker who seeks the what if in “Letter to My Husband” acknowledges
How cruel I am in my screen need,
the way I pin you to my want, whisper
to your photo shimmering over the surface
tension of my phone.
The contrast here is that the words in “Letter to My Husband” are written in an actual letter form, careful, traditional, dependable. Whereas, the poems which focus on the other, the what if lover are often transitory — a text that can be deleted, a phone switched off. The duality created here is not to be missed or taken lightly — communication and exploration of what it means to love are powerful motivators.
In addition to the ways in which connectivity works in Slide to Unlock, Bloemeke explores the choices we make not to call or speak, choices which gives us agency over our own voices and ultimately, our own paths. Bloemeke acknowledges how once “We could even leave / the rotary to ring” (“Slide to Unlock”), but that now we must create boundaries within ourselves because at any moment “we are keyed constant / pocketing names, waking // to flashes, feeling through the dark / before we open our eyes” (“Slide to Unlock”).
Bloemeke creates a universality of modern communication and its affect on interpersonal relationships in Slide to Unlock. In the book’s second poem, “The Hang Up,” the speaker admits: “It’s true: if I heard your voice / I would follow it,” proving that digital communication only goes so far, that it is the boundaries and all the ways we’ve chosen to be on hold that keep us locked into the one place of what if that is truly powerful.
Slide to Unlock is a testament to our time, especially now where so many of us are locked in, thinking, missing, reminiscing. As in the poem “Passing Hugo Boss,” we understand the ache of “the longing / the sudden negative space,” the wistful desire to fill this with memory, with myth-making. To pick up a cell phone, begin an email is so easy — a seemingly impersonal act that in fact, is quite personal. We yearn as humans are wont to do, as Bloemeke writes in “Letter to My Husband”, “She has her story. The myth / continues to rise.” And here, the myth rises powerfully in its timely truth.
Amanda Auchter is the author of The Wishing Tomb, winner of the 2013 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry and the 2012 Perugia Press Book Award, and The Glass Crib, winner of the 2010 Zone 3 Press First Book Award for Poetry. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming at The Huffington Post, CNN, Crab Creek Review, Rust + Moth, The Indianapolis Review, The West Review, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day project. Follow her on Twitter: @ALAuchter.