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Book Review: ‘The Length of a Clenched Fist’ by L.A. Felleman


Written as a calendar documenting March through October, a single narrator moves through life in lockdown in L.A. Felleman’s The Length of a Clenched Fist (Finishing Line Press). If I hadn’t lived through 2020 I might not understand references like “While Italians Sing Arias From Balconies” (the first poem’s title) or “the square / Marked out in masking tape / Before the checkout lane” (from the poem “Mismanaged”). But, as with most people who are able to read, I was there. Three years into a pandemic, the virus was starting to lose its edge — but some of those memories Felleman documents bring it back, biting and painful.

The epigraph alone is a jarring way to start a poetry collection: “Anyone who has shaved off or cut his beard will be imprisoned until the beard has grown to the length of a clenched fist” (The Bookseller of Kabul, a nonfiction book by Åsne Seierstad). It was unclear to me until well after finishing the book why this quote was used. But in the hangover that followed the book I remember those who protested lockdown in desperation for haircuts. I also thought it a sin to cut hair.

Firmly grounded in 2020, we go from early lockdown to endless routine to dates in the park, but we never resume any semblance of normal. Felleman does not refer to a “new normal”; she never assigns judgment onto others without her narrator accepting judgment first. This is a volume about survival. It is a time capsule of that which we want to forget.

While the collection documents the domestic intricacies of life in quarantine, the poems have a universal quality that can apply to other times in life when we are isolated or meditative. We have all been ill, felt lonely and experienced an upheaval of routine. This meditative voice is characteristic of Felleman’s work, and I think I would recognize it anywhere after reading this volume.

The poem that most exemplifies this voice, “How It Ends,” has Felleman distorting format while telling a single death narrative through four perspectives: “In the Cecile B. DeMille version”; “In the Broadway musical adaptation version”; “In the Disney version”; and “In this the Hospice version.” Here, we see one event reflected through different lenses. It is straightforward. It is inward-searching. It confronts our deepest pandemic fears and holds a mirror to each possibility.

There is a lot of sadness in this collection — Felleman discusses painful moments in vignettes, gives them shine and leaves them in their place — but it is not a sad book. Not sanitized, but sometimes dispassionate, the poems are documentarian before they are emotional. Felleman is taking photographs and putting them on display. The reader’s response is their own.

There is craft and exactness in many of these poems, the subtlety of a wallflower. Felleman writes like she’s been studying poetry, putting together the pieces of a puzzle to create the image she’s held in her mind and in this collection it provokes an uncanny sense of being witnessed. This is my own memory on display for me.

“Let it be known that, while I have prayed over this attitude / The requested upgrade / Has yet to materialize.”

This article was originally published in Little Village’s August 2022 issues.


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