The Year of No Mistakes
by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Bestseller by the author: Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine;Number of skulls in the Mütter Museum’s Hyrtl Skull Collection: 139; Tallest human skeleton in the Mütter Museum:7’6”; Most literary specimen in the Mütter Museum: the conjoined livers of Chang and Eng Bunker; Book by author yielding most disappointment among dirty old men performing Google searches: Hot Teen Slut; Closest thing to a hot teen slut in the Mütter Museum: the Soap Lady, the corpse of a woman in her mid-twenties whose body essentially turned to soap as it decomposed
Central Question: Does the future haunt the past?
The author photo at the end of The Year of No Mistakes is by no means slick. It’s a snapshot, taken, we can only assume, by someone in love—and who, in turn, the soft and hopeful smile of the poet suggests, is loved deeply and tenderly. Yet the photo credit buried in the collection’s front pages tells another story: “Author photo by Jeffrey Paul Seasholtz.” Not Jeff,not JP, certainly not Shappy: Jeffrey Paul, a name as formal as it is distant from the intimacy of the photo itself. Fittingly, the poetry that bridges the gap between the credit and the image chronicles the dissolution of Aptowicz’s eleven-year relationship with fellow poet Shappy Seasholtz. What emerges is not just the story of a breakup but a meditation on the passage of time and the uncanny resilience of the human heart.
Early on, Aptowicz offers a backward glance at the days when the relationship was full of promise. In “These United States,” two young lovers travel cross-country, high-fiving each other over barbecue, “mouths too full to form words,” making wishes to “an entire flock of shooting stars” while riding a Greyhound from one state to the next. In other poems, Manhattan feels “like an old Woody Allen joke” and the Bowery is a place where the lovers dance “like ball bearings” and laugh “like ripped newspapers.” Even so, Brooklyn, with its “white people… riding retro bikes all over,” can’t help but make the poet feel “old and poor,” while a constant flux of storefronts underscores the fleeting passage of time: “The café became another café became a juice place / became a snack bar became a café became a beefery / became an empty space.”
In the end, it’s being old and poor—or, more accurately, the all-too-quotidian reality that time passes and money is always in short supply—that does the once-young lovers in. Travel, formerly an occasion for wonder, becomes a necessity as Aptowicz describes moving first to Philadelphia and then to Austin, in search of a better life. But Austin “is hot and things don’t come as easily as / we had hoped: things like words or jobs or money.” Tellingly, the poet Googles images of fireworks to reignite her romance, only to turn up photos of mangled hands. Friends get jobs, get married, get pregnant. Bills pile up, and though nobody wants to break up over something so crass as money,
here we are anyway: in the living room,
dog cringing on the couch as we scream
so loudly, the jar of loose change by the door
rattles like a snake preparing to strike.
The breakup comes in a series of short blasts akin to haiku, ending with the couple sitting on a couch, “hearts strained against their cages.” That this moment occurs roughly in the middle of The Year of No Mistakes speaks to the symmetry of the collection. Yet while there’s life before and after the breakup, the details on either side bleed into each other, suggesting not only that the past lives on from one moment to the next but also that the future, in retrospect, always seems inevitable.
Throughout the second half of the collection, the poet embarks upon a long reconciliation with herself as she relearns how to define her identity in her own right, not in terms of another. In “The Closure Hotel,” we see formerly vivid memories disappearing into the fog of the past as Aptowicz describes tearing up old photos until streets she once knew intimately are “just streets again.” In the penultimate poem, she admits to her absent lover that he’s “still everywhere” before asking how to “undo these years of bone knowledge, / these ways I loved you without even knowing it?” Not surprisingly, the answer is that it’s impossible to undo the past. Our only recourse is to embrace all of life—the joy, the pain, the promise, the hope, the losses and gains, the infinite potential of each moment to lead one way or another—and to allow ourselves the illusion of moving of our own volition toward a future, no matter how familiar it will feel once we’ve arrived.
What The Year of No Mistakes asks us to do, ultimately, is to embrace the ambivalence of life à la Woody Allen in the introduction to Annie Hall: it’s full of loneliness, misery, and unhappiness, but it’s all over much too quickly. Having read the book, we know the trials in store for the young, hopeful poet in the photo at the end of the collection, but we wouldn’t begrudge her any of them.