The Feeling of Security: A Review of Rachel Galvin’s Elevated Threat

“Every last one of us wears knee-high boots, my lovely, / we live in a booted nation. A nation girded, and gunning.”

– Rachel Galvin, from “In My Sights, Sister”


What is the feeling of national security?


In the wake of the events on September 11, 2001, the US shifted toward a national security paradigm characterized by preparedness and preemption. Since the Cold War, US government officials have widely employed simulations and models—ever-more algorithmic and datafied—to create protocols for responding to potential national security emergencies. As Lindsay Thomas has noted, this speculative approach in the name of preparedness “emphasizes institutional readiness and emergency management” suffused with a pervasive affect of “ready detachment.”[1] Crisis thus becomes its own justification for the invasion of foreign nations and the invasion of domestic citizens’ privacy. Nothing personal, just the safety of our nation. The paradigm of preparedness paradoxically depends on the constant production of present insecurities, “alternative presents, or fictions, disguised as possible futures” that extend states of emergency in perpetuity.[2] Preparedness, in other words, depends on projections, fictions, be it about migrant caravans or bioweapons.

Rachel Galvin’s Elevated Threat Level makes palpable what it feels like to live within this paradigm. Through stark tonal, topical, and affective shifts within the trajectory of the volume, Galvin reproduces the everyday lived experience of an insecure modernity full of “pneumatic days” “clotted” with information and noise (6). Its hybrid form collides “news headlines” (“December 23, 2009”; “July 4, 2009”; “2015”) with lyrical, sometimes darkly humorous elegies—an unsettling of what constitutes the journalistic or the poetic when both and neither can tell the full story. Acts of US imperialism and warmongering framed as counterterror measures are always experienced belatedly and at a highly mediated remove: “If we had seen what had been done, / what the helicopter pilot did in our name, // what the special ops team did in our name, what they did / with their hands in our name.” This is war at a distance, violence done in our name but never witnessed until it is too late.[3]

But even as “War is happening over there,” the imperceptible, yet profound consequences of such global violences are lived out in bodies “here” “just as two cells from the same heart, / scraped into a petri dish, pulse in time.” From radiation to contagion, from surveillance to private equity, the security paradigm of preparedness and the acts done in its name perversely links seemingly separate spaces, times, and bodies through its many forms. This intercorporeal quality of global insecurity implicates us whether or not we are ordering the drone strike or raising the threat level or sharing an article. Yet it is this collective implication in the project of national security that enables “you [to] see your own falter // in the eyes of a woman you don’t know,” to find unexpected kinship with “the whole family...quarantined / though they’d never know if they’d really had it” or “the innards of a woman under ultraviolent light.” A byproduct of the paradigm of security is ironically precarity, painfully and tragically shared yet silent.

In the era of fake news and “alternative facts” gone viral, Galvin laments in “Gutenberg Nation” the death of newspapers, both real and imagined, which she documents in the parodic form of an obituaries section. If security and its discontents are lived out in the bodies caught in its noxious “plumes,” this embodied knowledge and memory (potentially inaccessible or unknown to the individual) clashes with “official narratives” perpetuated by corrupt governments and failing print media that do not “permit the coffins to emerge.”  In her conversation with Andy Fitch, Galvin names military historian, Yuval Harari, as an influence on her thinking about the cultures of wartime: “Harari argues that war is understood to bring a type of untransmittable knowledge, the authority of flesh-witnessing. Once you’ve acquired that knowledge through your body, you can’t necessarily give it away. It adheres to you.” This “flesh-witnessing” bears “a new matter-of-factness, not generated / by the goddess of facile type” precisely because it is born out of and inseparable from lived experience, embodied feelings unbearably sticky. Yet, as Galvin reminds us repeatedly through her verses’ many contradictions, paradoxes, and pivots, phenomenological experience even of traumatic events may not be any more certain. Perhaps what is most provocative about Elevated Threat Level is its poetic refusal of certainty and its accompanying comfort through a deliberate inhabitation of this epistemological black box that is our current moment of security. “The referent eludes you, keeps eluding you,” Galvin declares.

By the volume’s end, “we can barely breathe.” If securitas has always been a utopic fantasy of “being without care,” Galvin reveals the absurdity of it as a cornerstone of contemporary American life. The national security project of endless preparedness and meaningless violence, in these pages, seems that much more futile as it is cruel. Yet, in what feels stagnant and airtight, there is the grace of compassion and belief in other futures even “in a time of thuggery”:


James said the self is a bodily process that mostly takes place
in your head (I’m astonished at what persists—love,
When the thinking and knowing are gone,


still the loving self) and a moment may be suffused
by a uniform feeling of warmth (your love, I return it
) and will only be knowable afterwards. (36)



Travis Chi Wing Lau completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania and is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include 18th- and 19th-century British literature, the history of medicine, medical humanities, and disability studies. His academic writing has been published in Eighteenth-Century FictionRomantic CirclesDigital DefoeDisability Studies Quarterly, andEnglish Language Notes. His creative writing has appeared in WordgatheringGlassThe New EngagementNat. BrutMatador ReviewImpossible ArchetypeHematopoiesis Press, and Rogue Agent. His chapbook, The Bone Setter, was recently published with Damaged Goods Press. He currently serves as an editor for The Deaf Poets Society and reviews poetry for publications like Up the Staircase Quarterly and Tupelo Quarterly.





[1] “Forms of Duration: Preparedness, The Mars Trilogy, and the Management of Climate Change.” American Literature. 88.1 (2016): 161. See also Brian Massumi’s Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception (Duke UP, 2015) for more on the paradigm of preparedness.

[2] Thomas 164.

[3] I am here drawing on Mary Favret’s 2010 War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton UP, 2010), which speaks directly to the kind of work Galvin is doing in this book and in News of War: Civilian Poetry 1936-1945 (Oxford UP, 2017). She describes the kind of affective atmosphere that Galvin animates in her poetry: “the experience of war mediated, of time and times unmoored, of feeling intensified but also adrift” (9).