A Review: Emily Osborne's "Safety Razor"
Safety Razor is a collection heavily steeped in this idea of inheritance and reception.
As part of our review series, Margaryta Golovchenkol reviews Safety Razor by Emily Osborne (Gordon Hill Press, 2023). Find a copy at your local bookstore, or online at Gordon Hill Press.
In the poem “Heirlooms,” which appears towards the end of Emily Osborne’s debut collection Safety Razor, the speaker ruminates on a painting of an abandoned mansion by Jack Humphries and its role in her family history. The mansion is at once a family home that was lost due to the economic crash brought about by the Great Depression, as well as a symbol of the future through motherly care and concern the speaker has for sons, her ability to provide for them. At the conclusion of her reflections about the various temporal strings coming together and how her maternal feelings are woven into the familial narrative, Osborne concludes with striking lines that call attention to inheritance and legacy, drawing attention to the reception—of memory as much as of any kind of material object—as being equally important to the giving and passing on: “I say, All this was prepared by your Father./ They ignore lessons, crayon walls,/ find rodent bones in vases.”
Safety Razor is a collection heavily steeped in this idea of inheritance and reception. It is as much a gathering of poems about the evolution of family, from the speaker’s youth to the formation of a new family, as it is about carrying bits of culture and history forward. Images like a toy Decepticon, Jumbo, and Botticelli’s Venus appear next to moments of contemplation and self-reflection, from the more comical image of “[d]inner [splattering] on its plastic cover,/ mashed foods groomed to nuke in sync”, to the more philosophical contemplation of a poem like “Dark ceilings,” which connects the night sky of literature and of the Anthropocene present and the “upstairs-downstairs/ tug called gravity” becomes a paradoxical force existing between these two perspectives.
Safety Razor is a collection heavily steeped in this idea of inheritance and reception. It is as much a gathering of poems about the evolution of family, from the speaker’s youth to the formation of a new family, as it is about carrying bits of culture and history forward.
This combination of poems creates a layering effect, a peeling-back ethat accelerates as the reader progresses through the collection. The titles of the three sections—“First Cut”, “Bare Bones”, and “Flesh Meets”—work in tandem with the collection’s title. Together, they form an image of a cut that slowly expands, causing the body that has been nicked to gradually unravel. The section “First Cuts” begins with poems that are more personal in tone, focusing on childhood and the perspective that youth gives on family. The poems then shift in tone as they explore the theme of growing up, referencing motherhood and the more adult concerns that often come with age, although even here Osborne refuses to sacrifice her humorous tone. The poem “Antarctic Anthem” is a testament to this, specifically the passage in which she describes the “Antarctic Look”: “touted as the antidote/ to cyclical fashion, to blogs swapping neutrals with neons./ Your skyline’s ben styled the same for eons.” The second section, “Bare Bones”, is more cultural in focus, with language being emphasized as both the subject and the vehicle for conveying meaning. Here, Osborne’s poems think about geology, history, and religion, appropriate given the section’s overall atmosphere of beginning to penetrate below the skin poetically as well as socially. The third section, “Flesh Meets”, returns the focus to the speaker. Osborne presents the reader with a mini narrative that spans the speaker meeting their partner, followed by their marriage and the speaker’s pregnancy, before culminating in the birth of their child. At the same time, Osborne continues thinking about being and existence on a molecular and cosmic level, where the scientific becomes quasi-spiritual, an approach most palpable in the piece “Biometrics.”
As I progressed through Safety Razor, I found myself subconsciously seeking out language related to the title, to this notion of shaving away the self, the past, limitations of language. Osborne creates such a trail of words in her collection. While “safety” and “razor” make a direct appearance in two separate poems, words associated with the safety razor as an object, such as “barbed”, “gashes”, and “tore”, were much more jarring to come across, primarily because they always felt unexpected. They never felt like Osborne was inserting them for heightened tension or to elicit a stronger sensation in the reader. Rather, these thematic words, as I came to think of them, emphasize the element of unpredictability associated with as intimate an act as shaving. To be vulnerable verbally and emotionally, as Osborne’s speaker often is, can have the same result as nicking oneself, the pain and bleeding no less copious just because it is not physical.
As I progressed through Safety Razor, I found myself subconsciously seeking out language related to the title, to this notion of shaving away the self, the past, limitations of language. Osborne creates such a trail of words in her collection.
One of the most interesting features of Safety Razor is the series of poems translated from Old Norse-Icelandic skaldic verse by Osborne herself. On one hand, these poems are another way of bringing the personal into the collection, signalling to Osborne’s academic background in Old English and Old Norse Literature. On the other hand, their placement throughout Safety Razor, scattered throughout and always appearing as a surprise with the turn of a page, make it feel like the past is peaking in on the present, always watching omnipotently, much like the physically absent but still indirectly referenced god, Oðinn. The function of these poems recalls the image in the closing lines of “‘Sonatorrek’”:
I carried one son’s corpse.
I carry word-timber,
leafed in language,
from the speech-shrine.
A poem about the craft of poetry, it also captures the idea of language as a family member, of stories as children that require care and attention. By integrating these translations into her collection and placing them side by side with her own poetry, Osborne returns the reader to this idea of giving and receiving, of language and culture as a gift that is passed on but always transformed through the movement forward in time and horizontally across culture and media.
A poem about the craft of poetry, it also captures the idea of language as a family member, of stories as children that require care and attention.
Safety Razor is a collection that assembles a diverse cast of characters and scenarios across time and scape. Combined with Osborne’s academic background, the result is the sensation of reading an almanac of stories: the connection between them may not always be apparent, but the sense of wonder that encompasses them is what encourages the reader to approach the poems with a certain openness reminiscent of folklore and other such tales.
Margaryta Golovchenko (she/her) is first generation Ukrainian settler-immigrant, poet, and critic from Tkaronto/Toronto. Her latest chapbook, Daughterland, was published by Anstruther Press in 2022. Her individual poems have appeared in talking about strawberries all of the time, Channel Magazine, Prairie Fire, Menacing Hedge, Long Con, and others. She has written literary and art criticism for a variety of publicatins. She is currently a PhD student in art history at the University of Oregon, studying the representation of human-animal relationships in modern and contemporary art.