Book Reviews Features

Excited Utterances: A review of Chelsey Clammer’s new essay collection, Human Heartbeat Detected

By Jennifer Sutherland

photography by Leeta Harding

Toward the end of the summer, I got COVID-19. I didn’t get that sick (thank you, medical science!), but I got sick enough that my relationship with language was weirdly changed for a while. If I tried to read a book, the words moved around on the page. I spent a feverish fifteen minutes trying to interpret television movie subtitles before I realized they were in Portuguese. Speaking was a whole other thing, and it was easier not to try, so I slept a lot. Illness is one kind of trauma and trauma has a way of interfering with not only how we live but how we talk (or write) about our lives. Finding a way to speak from underneath trauma, through it, in front of it, inside of it, requires courage and enough tenacity to keep trying.

The language effects of trauma-speaking are everywhere in Chelsey Clammer’s linked, lyric essay collection, Human Heartbeat Detected. Sentences are often fragmentary, reading like the speaker is talking herself through the experience she’s writing about in real time, as in this passage from a piece titled “Graftology”:

Size. Slant. Pressure. Size, slant, pressure. Size slant pressure. Sizeslantpressure. The mantra in my head coils together, tighter, quickly tightens and coils and tightens and coils and tightens together too quickly, so quick that it takes a bit for me to realize what’s really going on. How one style of my writing has a roughness. Notches with permanence. Years of tough moments. Notated.  

Other pieces allow a little more distance, but the tone still reflects barely concealed pain. In “The Effects of Silence,” Clammer reports in a near journalistic style the repercussions of a friend’s custody fight with her children’s father and sexual abuser. The legal system has not accepted the evidence of abuse and continues to require regular, unsupervised visits with the abuser, even as the children suffer. The friend, Emma, has tried leaving the state, has taken the children to see physicians and therapists, has presented her proof over and over again, and the result is silence because the courts think she’s spiteful. She’s also spent a great deal of money trying to help her children. “Being vindictive sure is costly,” Clammer grimly sums up, leaving to our imaginations the real cost of what has happened to these children, who will be paying this debt for the rest of their lives.

There is a hazy narrative arc at work here, traveling through an attempted sexual assault, the end of a marriage, and the end of other relationships. What really unites these pieces, though, is their reckoning with the tendency of pain to isolate its sufferers from the people who might otherwise save them. In the eponymous essay that opens the book, for example, Clammer writes about her husband, struggling with mental illness, building a robot that will respond only when it senses a human’s heartbeat nearby. The project consumes him for months. He has to teach himself computer programming and how to weld and solder the metal that will hold the thing together. He tinkers away until the robot acquires a voice: “Human heartbeat detected,” it says, in a woman’s voice. “Welcome, human.” This preoccupation has exactly the effect you expect:

Each time I need to cry, I wait until he’s too involved with his tinkering to want to go outside with me to smoke a cigarette in the –5º evening air. I go outside. I smoke. Sob. Finish up the smoke and the sobs. I have to detach so his detachment doesn’t break me. Split me. I go inside with glistening crystals clinging to my eyelashes. He doesn’t notice. Keeps tinkering. 

It’s hard to tell when many of the events described in the collection took place, or over how long a time frame, although there are some clues. In one early piece, for example, Clammer and her husband attend a Women’s March, and there are pink pussy hats there, so we know we’re in the realm of recent history. What we’re witnessing is still raw, working under the skin, unfinished. We are still witnessing, not yet processing. The voice in these essays is working through, not looking back from tranquility; and because pain has isolated the speaker from her friends, her community, many of whom are dealing with their own traumas, she turns to her notebook. 

Writing was a process of discovering. Each time I wrote, I found a new angle into my past, a new way to approach and consider life. It was about getting that narrative out. Words as ushers. I wasn’t so much documenting trauma, but transforming past pain into a tangible story. . . .

I was turning pain into art. Crafting it. Gaining strength by inciting a voice.

Courts—where many relationships are formally, if not really, ended—generally don’t permit hearsay evidence, which is a statement made outside of court. Hearsay is not trustworthy. There are some exceptions to the general rule, though, and one of them is for the things a person says when they are in the middle of an emergency. Courts treat those statements, known as excited utterances, as trustworthy because the speaker lacks the time or the presence of mind to edit or filter what they say. I found myself thinking about that a lot as I read this collection.

This sort of project means, necessarily, that if this was fiction, there would be essential bits of narrative missing. The characters who come into and out of the speaker’s orbit sometimes feel a little thin. I didn’t mind. I understood that I was watching a process unfold, not putting a puzzle together. Clammer confesses empathy for some of the people who have caused her harm, and it was sometimes difficult to share her empathy, especially in one situation involving a neglected child. I get it, that might be the point. Wounded people look out at the world through their wounds, and they speak in a wounded language. By the concluding essay, Clammer is experimenting with, and luxuriating in, embodied pleasure with a new love interest. I don’t think it’s accidental that the voice in this piece has become less fragmented, more assured. A great deal of work has happened in order for her to arrive here, and this new voice assumes the time and space necessary for thinking about experience before speaking it. 

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Human Heartbeat Detected

by Chelsey Clammer

Red Hen Press $16.95

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Jennifer Sutherland’s work has appeared in Best New Poets, The Hollins Critic, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her first collection of poetry, Bullet Points, will appear in 2023. 

I'm a fiction and CNF writer, an editor, and a blogger. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. An Ohio native, I'm at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype Midwestern authors at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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