In her haunting debut poetry collection Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor, author Elizabeth Onusko explores the many limitations of the human body. Throughout the collection, the speaker attempts to grapple with the realities of their medical condition, seemingly suspended between needing to let go, yet wanting to keep fighting. These conflicts absorb much of the book, making it a chilling reflection of what it means to be alive.
From the beginning, Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor grips readers. It isn’t afraid of being bizarre as it questions the futility of the human race. The poem “How to be Almighty” shows readers its teeth as it challenges our notion of a higher power. It’s written as an instruction manual, and reads: “pause longer than you should // before answering their prayers. Or don’t / respond at all” (lines 14-16). By putting readers in the shoes of the “almighty” the poem makes a powerful comment about the uselessness of “trying to learn, but . . . mostly failing” (lines 4-5). It’s fearlessly out of this word, almost existential.
One aspect that is unique about Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor is the ways in which Onusko effortlessly weaves in medical terminology. The collaboration between science and poetry is harmonious and the images that branch out of this are stunningly accurate. In the poem “Pathology” the speaker jumps from one dazzling image to another: “inside my abdomen / / a chain of volcanoes / erupting on cue” (lines 3-5). The images are often wacky and fun, despite the situations that define much of this speaker’s life. My favorite line in the collection (among others) comes in the poem “The Patient” where, despite the speaker’s chest being “catatonic,” there is a “lascivious violinist / who drinks late into the night” (lines 10-11). These images are what makes this collection a thrilling read.
Despite death and danger being on the edge of every poem in Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor, even the speaker recognizes the rare moments of hope. The penultimate poem in the collection is titled “In Spite of Everything” and shows readers that life ultimately keeps moving forward, no matter what. The poem takes us through a series of apocalyptic images, and then ends with: “they find a dollhouse demolished / save for the nursery, / inside of which a baby is swaddled” (lines 30-32). This lasting image may be the crux of what this collection is attempting to portray.
I feel thankful to have spent time with Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor. It gave me a lot to think about, and so many of these poems have left an impression on me. I’m glad to have interviewed Onusko (view it here), and especially happy that she is currently working on her second collection.
Cover of Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor and logo of Red Paint Hill Pulishing courtesy of Red Paint Hill Publishing.
Buy Onusko’s collection here.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Red Paint Hill Publishing: “Red Paint Hill Publishing is a nationally recognized independent publisher committed to the discovery and publication of culturally diverse poetry & art. We began publishing poetry manuscripts in 2013 in Clarksville, TN. Our books are distributed nationally & internationally through our website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and various brick and mortar retailers including Powell’s Books.”*