Wicker Girl by Janna Vought
from Virgo eBooks Publishing
Review by April Salzano
Janna Vought’s chapbook explores the female existence through one woman’s personal evolution, which is fraught with failure, self-loathing, and disgust of her surroundings. The speaker within these tortured pages seeks to unravel the enslaved notion of femininity. The progression from Girl to Woman, as the first two sections are appropriately titled, is unfortunately lateral. The final section and stage of life is “Soul,” an independent, severed portion of the female self that gains brief reprieve through acts of art and imagination, but ultimately, remains destined to repeat the timeless misfortune of her sisters cursed to the confines of womanhood with its “muted tongue” and “hands bound.”
Girlhood, both concept and section, is a two-act play that ends in tragedy. “Family mythology” is the story of the speaker’s mother and first vision of woman, a “Bella Donna trapped/inside a chain-smoking/housewife sentenced” to the speaker’s father “by fate.” This, we realized early, is a place where “Adults in aluminum chairs, weave misinterpreted history.” We also learn in this section just how important perception is to truth. In one prose poem we are taken on a punctuated, truncated ride through history, courtesy of a collection of images recalled from birth to adulthood, those “years tied to a gasoline stake.” The speaker, her own version of a witch, commands her body to separate from her soul and mind while flesh loses life and she burns the house down.
“Fragments of My Rape,” assaults us with splintered imagery, a whole that when pieced together is as gruesome as its component parts. In the room where the young girl is violated, faith dies along with her innocence. “Black eyes/God’s eyes” fill the face of the perpetrator while the speaker blames only herself for being ignorant. The rape and it’s “aftershocks” transform the her before our eyes from one who is able to love, to one who “lay[s] siege” to herself through reliving memory and self-mutilation, though one is indiscernible from the other. Her “toxic memories” are as harmful as any “razor-slice,” as are the eating disorders and the alcohol to drown or purge the unanswered prayers. “Fuck you, God,” a broken girl finally says. “One day, that room from long ago bursts/into pure light,” and forgetting is no longer an option. Gone is every “trace of the shadow/that kept me company,” she tells us. In the light of truth and surfaced memory, the speaker drowns. “Let me sleep./Bring the rain,” she begs. “Ignorance is woman’s virtue;/intelligence sleeps with demons.”
In the next section, the author confirms that this is indeed a woman forever haunted, one who hates herself perhaps more now as “wife-mother” than she did as a child. She is ghosted and confined to a silence that “clangs within.” In “A Haunting,” she reveals what she wants from life: to not “end/up forgotten, burnt wood/turned to ash, dissipating/into empty air.” In “Heretic’s Hymn,” the speaker shows us that not much has changed from girl to woman. She still refuses faith: “God doesn’t believe/in me—I don’t believe/in Him.” The feminist reader hears the echoes of Plath and Sexton in Vought’s contemplation of the end and the very purpose of female existence and self-identity. In “Stepford Wives Revisited, she fears “life will never end.” With a literary nod to Sexton she allows us to glimpse into her madness: “Most days I don’t remember. I haunt/the clothes I wear,” followed by a tribute to Plath with the line “I’m perfected for nothing.” As Vought situates herself next to these two Queens of Darkness, she shows that death, for all three women is “the only way” to rid themselves “of the stranger inside,” to become both Self and Other, sharing “stories/of the end, where “they’ll wash away/all fingerprints and tears.” The breakdown of Vought’s speaker is as indicative of her time as Plath’s or Sexton’s, but sadly just as futile in the midst of the mundane, the milk and butter and eggs, as she shows in the poem “Madness,” where she loses it in Safeway. “Clean up Aisle 7!” is one of the few lines of humor in this work, however bleak. Equally dark and disturbing are the portraits of despair and loneliness painted in “Snapshots of Suburbia,” where women are their pathetic stories of “the depths of their desire,” from “Bed, Bath,/and Beyond,” clutching iPhones and lamenting loss alone. Each character that the speaker voyeuristically observes has a name and an action that defines her. “Tween Queen” regurgitates her “Hostess cupcakes/and Dulcolax. Her friends/don’t have to do a thing/to wear skinny jeans.” It becomes unclear which is worse, the “good girls whittled to bone, blue veins pulsing,” or the “tangle of sorrow” that spider webs from their lives, consumed with jobs they hate, children they fear, and husbands they can’t find, all of which become the “corpses piled high,” the charade the speaker leaves behind as she moves from Woman to Soul. “A beautiful exit” is the death of a witch. “The Living Word” provides some solace, perhaps the only in this tortured story where just like the apathetic world in which we live, we see “no wrists heavy/with broken chain,” where our very apathy provides kindling for a centuries-long fire.