Review of “What’s Hanging on the Hush” by Lauren Russell

Published by Inside Our Minds on

In preparation for Inside Our Minds upcoming workshop hosted by author and poet Lauren Russell, collective member Micah Shelton reviewed her book of poetry What’s Hanging on the Hush, published by Ashata Press in 2017. From 2016 to 2020, Lauren Russell was assistant director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh. She currently lives in Michigan after joining the faculty of Michigan State University in the fall of 2020 as an assistant professor in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) and director of the RCAH Center for Poetry.

Lauren Russell’s collection What’s Hanging on the Hush, is a brilliant introduction by the writer. It is both deeply engaging and intimate, pulling the reader into the poet’s experiences and influences all with ameticulous attention to sound and imagery. Wide–ranging scenes take us from Pittsburgh apartments trailing a willful cat to the banality of bookkeeping in the Inquisition and the nameless, forgotten tragedy of the Jim Crow south. What ties the work together is a restless, driving energy that animates each line.

‘Once I fell in love with an Absence. It outgrew the apartment and wouldn’t take off its clothes. After we moved it turned taut and slinky, hid in shadows or slid provocatively beneath my coat.’

The pieces are lyric, pointed, and often colored by an exacting humor. The poet is open with herself and is able to thus be open with the reader. Her poems invite us inside of her loss, longing, and madness with a feline grace. ‘The Chess Players’ sees Russell masterfully play with language but further, the visual layout of words on the page to give space for ideas and images. She describes a scene from a psychiatric unit:

[Screenshot of poetry with unconventional formatting. Text reads, “He sat in the hallway by Sol’s room. / They sat with a doorway / and a chessboard / between them and played incessantly / without remark. / I imagined them as a painting called The Chess Players“]

The poem embodies much about what is gripping in all of Russell’s work: her unique ability to find truth and beauty in the ordinary and to imbue the extraordinary and painful with a sense of levity. The full result of her attention is to give everything she touches the sense of threadbare timelessness like a patchwork quilt. This work is a confluence of ideas and energy that carries the reader along like the rivers meeting in the city in which the work was created. It is an exemplary collection.

Her latest work, Descent, is a hybrid of poetry and prose, which uses historical documents and family history to create a biomythography that explores race, family, and lineage. It is available now from Tarpaulin Sky Press.

Inside Our Minds

Inside Our Minds is an organization that works to elevate the voices of people with lived experience of mental illness and madness.


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