Odes to Lithium by Shira Erlichman: A Review

The times I’ve returned to Odes to Lithium: a list

  1. After I tell people at work I’m autistic and they don’t fully believe me
  2. After i say, “i can’t do this because i’m autistic” and someone i love asks me, “you’re really gonna milk this one, huh?”
  3. When I skipped therapy because I thought I was getting better
  4. After the man who looks like my sexual harrasser comes to work and talks to me and will not leave
  5. After I successfully made it down a little slope in my neighborhood on my skateboard / after falling on my side *hard* and getting right back up
  6. Before the scissors / the blade / the too many pills / the incognito windows of inpatient hospitals and the closing of each tab when seeing the price and remembering I have work in the morning

“There is no question like the body.” Shira Erlichman writes in “How The Jellyfish Prospered” from her full-length collection, Odes to Lithium, out today from Alice James Books.

Odes to Lithium is a series of poems that don’t so much demand an answer to this question, but offers different tunnels to excavate and peer through and reach for answers. Each poem, is in conversation with Lithium–a soft silver-white alkali element, the lightest metal known and is used in batteries, chemical synthesis, and psychiatric medicine–, and so of course, is in conversation with the body, because how can you talk about healing and mental illness and the avenues ricocheting in between them without talking about the body?

Aside from being one of the greatest, most giving, and gently suggesting the path to your soul-opening teachers I’ve ever met, Erlichman is a truth-sealer. Her words overbrim. I didn’t stay up devouring this book because it’s not work that I wanted to finish so quickly. Yes, each poem each page whispers, another another another but I didn’t want my experience with this book to end so soon. If not enough that the words but the art too, keep your attention beyond captivation. After “Portrait of a Release”,

“It’s simple and it works:
Notice the colors around you.
In ROYGBIV order.
This will reroute your brain
away from the emotional center, where mother happens,
towards the logical center, where math happens.”

I stared at the black and white picture after the poem, trying to imagine the violets and blues, greens and orange, blues in places beyond my hands. I still walk outside, trying to learn to to inhale the yellow of the fall leaves to slow down my anxious breath.

Odes to Lithium expands on the multitudes Erlichman has, actually just finds a new word for multitudes to scratch the surface of what Erlichman contains. Her art includes drawing, painting, music, and words in so many forms.

Earlier this year, Erlichman released her children’s book, Be/Hold a friendship book, that loops compound words and your most important people and the feelings you hold for them into a bracelet of sorts, the kind that still has that scrawny piece of yarn, but she made it for you, so you just let it live it’s life down to the thin unbraided threads.

Odes to Lithium is the knotted bracelet kept in your pocket because you’re too old for friendship bracelets. But is something you can’t let go of, never wish to, keep running your fingers over it like a touch stone like grounding like growing up and adulthood and the intersection of all this with mental illness have undone so much, that at least this bracelet, the fingering of the wayward strands of yarn, remind you of your core, of where you need to come back to come home again.

the time Odes to Lithium found me:

  1. it arrives during one of my worst downs (so far below down that even gravity has a new name for it), where i’ve avoided my therapist for two weeks, where i’ve stared at my tasteful grey walls and felt nothing but fourth grade dissociation on my tongue. it arrives when everyone in my family can tell that i’m going somewhere it’s near impossible to get me out of. my mom kissing my forehead then the crevice between my shoulder and neck, like when i was a child, tickling me, making me laugh. my sister hugging me and worse, me letting her. my dad asking if i’m hungry, smiling when a package comes in for me, the top left corner titled Alice James Books, my dad smiling because if there is anything that brings me back its words like this.

Have you ever tried to take the pieces of a story and put them in the VCR of your mind, only to find snags in places? Dialogue missing open mouths, the narrator forgetting to tell you to watch out, the protagonist coming to save the day so late, the antagonist has done all the work for them? The VCR isn’t acting like the instructions said it would but the humming, the pulsing. It’s not operating the way you’d expect but it’s getting the stories to you the way you need them. All the snags mean you’ve got to story different, which doesn’t mean wrong, you’re learning.

Erlichman writes in the acknowledgements: “For the mentally ill. This books is most especially, most undoubtedly, and gratefully for you. May we keep speaking ourselves into the room until the whole world is our room.”

There aren’t enough works of art that tell the stories about mental illness, truthfully. Often, for me at least, mental illness is just having a whole bunch of these VCRs on at he same time, trying to add the right tapes and catch them at the right moments to make sense of everything. Odes to Lithium is one of the tapes that played at the right speed for me, that made me think that maybe I wasn’t watching everything wrong / maybe my brain isn’t wrong, it’s just got to listen and talk different.

So many mental illness narratives are focused on being rid of the mental illness or the world being rid of the mentally ill. Odes to Lithium doesn’t fall into either of these categories and makes room for a spectrum, a universe we’re allowed to inhabit: one where we are allowed the joys and fear and failures and successes and the extraordinary and the mundane and all that lies in between without apology or penance or whatever the world is ableistically demanding of us today. Odes to Lithium doesn’t give you room to be yourself, it grabs your hand and shows you that wherever you are is the room you are allowed and needed to be in.

The times you should let Odes to Lithium find you:
– in the past
– in the present
– in the future (especially September 17th)
– in between and around and through and behind and sideways of all of the above
– whenever you say what you are and know the truth of it and someone else tells you you are not. whenever this happens and you struggle with holding your truth close. whenever this happens and you need someone to remind you to hold that truth tighter (or looser if that frees you better).

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