To pick up This Void Beckons, by former University of Iowa student A.J.K. O’Donnell, is to take a journey through the question of human destiny. This is not a simple book of poetry, but a linguistic feast evoking an emotional and psychological response to the nuanced question, “How do we express our common humanity?”
The poems, though given separate headings, are really one continuous poem, which travels through an alliterative journey in which the reader is asked to participate. But this is no frolic through pretty words. The reader is almost immediately confronted with representations of abandonment, blind faith and false hope. As the thread of narrative continues, we are given clear examples of the worst side of humanity and its capacity for demonizing the Other, whether due to race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or any other quality that allows us to form an exclusionary group.
By using a second person narrative technique, O’Donnell acknowledges that the reader, as a member of humankind, also shares this story. We are drawn through the path toward virtually experiencing violence against ourselves, and as a result, we are pulled more deeply into the story. We are asked to imagine that we ourselves are the Other, and our path must go through assault and oppression in order to free ourselves from a legacy of fear.
As we move through violence, we come to a place of acceptance. Here, the human search for meaning can be expressed spiritually, religiously, or through scientific inquiry; this is the place where our common humanity shines, and all are valued for our differences as much as our similarities. Our intersectionality is paradoxically that which binds us together in an ideal state of existence.
Coming to the last third of the book, we gain an understanding of the Void: the emptiness which impels us to search for meaning and connection. It is not a negative quality, but a state of beginning and renewal. O’Donnell introduces two ungendered characters meant to reflect what we see as the best and the worst of human striving, and implies that they reflect the journey we are also taking. Through O’Donnell’s unique poetic voice, the reader experiences a desire for that journey and that renewal.
O’Donnell unpicks the meaning of her own poem in an afterword, and both challenges and invites the reader to do their own searching through the Void. In an age of conflict and strife, This Void Beckons is an emotionally taxing but rewarding way of beginning that search.