Saturday, January 24, 2015

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.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Likely Story, by Robbi Nester 

Published by Moon Tide Press

Reviewed by: April Salzano

Though closely sewn around the theme of the power of narrative, Robbi Nester’s collection, A Likely Story, presents poems that are eclectic in style, form, and tone, utilizing everything from ekphrastia to myth, parable, and parody. In a nine-part organization, Nester examines the natural world, and the observer’s place therein. The pieces are rich with imagery and demonstrate our interconnectedness with the world, with our histories, and with each other.

            “I can’t be sure my source was factual,” the speaker tells us in “Chronicle,” the second poem in the opening section, Tall Ones. The narrator makes this disclaimer only after repeating tales of goat-sized rats and a woman eaten by her anaconda. “So tell/your stories and avert your eyes,” the poem concludes, as if to say that seeing is her duty, adding detail to narrative to examine personal myth. She expresses a distinct refusal to “return to pitiless time” from the position above the earth she has held since she was five. From here, her world will be examined, at times against her own will.

            This notion of bearing witness and functioning as storyteller is expanded on to indeed include “a cast of thousands,” the subtitle of the second section. “Anyone can be a messenger./Survival may rely on an extended hand,” 9/11 survivor Usman Farman tells us in the poem inspired by the PBS Documentary.  Nester still gives the sense that perspective is everything. “And what I saw—or think I did,” as she says in the poem aptly title “Witness” expresses her own doubt in determining what is real from what is projection. In “Night Patrol,” her shadow-self sits in a room that exists only at night, “and then only/halfway between/inside and out.” In a kind of Jamesian “Jolly Corner” fashion, she creates a place where identity is born only through encounter with the self, that “alien other” we observe but never engage in dialogue.

            Nester also demonstrates that the notion of where the story takes place is as crucial to perspective as who is relaying the message and who is involved. Memory deserves a palace, however, metaphorical, as she says of a childhood home repeatedly renovated and “multiplied in memory.” Section IV, In the Canyon, a short series of poems that functions almost as an extension of the previous section Location, Location, examines woman’s place in the natural world. Here we find ourselves “where daylight shadow shrinks and hides/and every rock proclaims ‘I am.’”

            The relationship with nature continues as the poet reflects on the juxtaposition of self and other in the section Natural Bonds. This is most profoundly expressed in “Newcomers,” where the “tree of heaven [is] growing spindly/through the sewer grate.”  Internal thoughts and the external world are examined as they relate to one another, the biology of a world going on under watchful eye, unaware of the trespass, or sometimes, like the million beings of “The Pond,” at once “aware,” and “oblivious” of each other.

            In the poem “Autobiography,” the author segues into the celebration of her own history by way of contrast. She is nothing like her home’s previous inhabitant, who removed the faces of his relatives from photos with “the clear desire/to blot out everything.” In Section VI, The Circle, she shows that she is instead astute historian and scribe, paying homage to the now faceless relatives who shaped her: distant cousins, father, grandfather, and grandmother, who, “carries Russia like a loaf,/beneath her arm.”

            Like personal histories, cultural history must also be brought to us through witness. In the section Suspending Belief, Nester shows that the world, with all its unexplained power, is humbling. We are awestruck by the very questions that lack solid answers: “Does choice or chance decide/who they will be, these witnesses?” she asks. The imagery for this very suspension of belief is most acute when the author explores “a world we cannot see,” where “together and alone,” the narrator, fellow meditators, and readers “descend/backward on ladders,” our “restless senses tethered/to a task, we can begin again.” Nester adds a brief section In the Telling, that poses and extension of the discussion on witness to include the medium through which we tell our tales, asking “what does this mean?” in the poem “What Are Poems For?” 

            The last section, Train of Thought, employs the extended metaphor of a vehicle travelling into the world. One of the major themes of the section and the collection as a whole is contained in the trains windows, passengers, even the names of train stops, all serving as metaphor for what carries those of us who are alive and awake with the power of perception, the task of history. Our stories are “likely” because our myths and parables are the fabric of who we are, our images and our truths.