In this stunning collection Michael Gessner pays full attention to the marginal and the marginalized –– whether unwashed, rejected, condemned, or simply unusual –– and brilliantly inhabits them, evoking their passions, their yearnings, and also the rare strands of hope that sustain and illuminate.Read more »
Kristina Marie Darling’s new collection, Women and Ghosts, is billed as a book of essays; however, the book is an ambitious hybrid of lyric essay, literary criticism, poetry, and playwriting. Women and Ghosts is a stunning and spare account of the female characters in various Shakespearean plays partially written from the perspectives of the characters themselves—Ophelia, Cleopatra, Desdemona, and others. The other voices that make up the book include a critic, a playwright, actors, and a female speaker who seems to take on the persona of the contemporary poet herself. This contemporary speaker recounts a relationship where a man dominates her, and this story is multiplied back across all of Shakespeare’s female characters, which were of course in similar situations themselves. In other words—the chorus of female voices silencing, shouting, and stuffing this famous man’s words is impressive.
The book physically appears to be ghosted—most of the text is printed in a light grayscale that may be difficult for some to read. A few, fragile words rise to the surface of the page. Some phrases are crossed out, especially in the opening section, “Daylight Has Already Come” and the two later sections, “Essays on Production” and “Essays on Props.” Darling also keeps her favorite props close here in Women and Ghosts. Fans of her work from books like X Marks the Dress and Fortress will recognize the “good” silver, flowers, fine china, and lush John Singer Sargent-like fabrics, particularly described in women’s dresses, that dot this landscape.
Darling’s work owes a great deal to Jen Bervin's trailblazing book, Nets, a collection of erasure poems using the source text of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but Darling extends outward from this. Women and Ghosts shows us an author whose critical and creative sides meet at a rocky confluence. Aside from the critical sections, the book reads as part narrative and part performance. The duality exists most obviously in the “Women and Ghosts” section where Shakespearean scenes are summarized briefly and below, a different story is told in the footnotes. For example, the summary of Othello’s final scene simply reads, “Othello ends when Desdemona is smothered and left for dead.” However, in the footnote, the speaker wonders, “If I can act like a girl who just fell in love. Maybe then I will be able to speak” (29). This quote could be looked at as a summary of the summary. It’s conceivable that Desdemona would have this thought as her husband smothered her. It seems more likely, however, that the poet/speaker is channeling Desdemona in her own contemporary life.
Loren Kleinman brings a poet's sensibility to her captivating memoir that is at once serious and sly, self-deprecating and a powerful declaration of self. Her memoir is less about memory than it is a fine-tuned, near magical consideration of the small details that ultimately make manifest the large passions of her life. Her edgy meditations are a bit like a delicately rendered Lost and Found for the great grab bag of human experience--instantly relatable, brash, intimate and true.Read more »
Wake and Drink by Laura Madeline Wiseman
Reviewed by Octavia Cade
30 March 2016
These two poetry collections are reviewed together. There's some similarity between them: both are centred on family and myth, with metaphors both mortuary and marine. Both are worth reading, although if you've only got time for one, I'd recommend you go for Drink. I'll get to that one in a bit.
Wake is the slimmer of the two volumes, and it is primarily concerned with death—specifically, relationships with death. Before death, after death, how monsters approach death and how women do. The last of these is particularly relevant, as Wiseman's death is a woman, come in the form of a sister. This female, familiar perception is not one I've come across often—barring F.G. Haghenbeck's portrayal of Godmother Death in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo, or Death in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, for instance—and it gives an interesting flavour to the text, one that's underlined and simultaneously undercut by the unsympathetic portrayals of corporeal sisters.
"Unsaid Negative Confession: We Hate You" (p. 49) has the poem's narrator screaming her hatred at a sister who stands block-like, impervious. Apparently she feels nothing; the hatred doesn't touch her—which is what you'd expect from a death-sister and not a blood one. Everything dies, and tantrums on the stairs make no difference. The mythological carries on, undisturbed by the messiness of human emotions and accusations. Yet the attraction remains, the sense of family loyalty even if it's one-sided.
"I like monsters" says the poet (in "Preference," p. 56). Yet "My sister is a monster," claims "Barren Monsters," (p. 58) which tells of an abusive relationship between the sister and her partner, a man who hits and pulls her hair, who calls her names. The sister is infertile, presumably because "Monsters and humans can't mate". One would presume, in this case, that it's the partner who is the true monster, but biological femininity will out—the bleeding, the "extra wombs"—for body here defines monstrosity more than action. It's a classification prefigured by early behaviour. The poem "Book of Monsters" (p. 61) states that "As a girl, my sister painted her bedroom's ceiling and walls black". Black, the colour of death, of unconsciousness and falling away, if ever there was one. The monster-sister, building a habitat.
No surprise, then, that this monstrosity is reflected in the death-sister. The walls between realities are narrow things, and easy to split. This is most obvious in the imagery of the death-house. In this world, that house is only visited once, and the door is one way. In Wake, however, the house of death is a place to be visited over and over again as one walks in and out of the underworld, as in myth and legend.
Part of this dual approach is due to the nature of the collection: Wiseman takes a genre-mashing approach, creating a whole out of disparate parts, so that more realistic poems are cheek-by-jowl with explorations of fairy tales (the Little Mermaid and Snow White) and mythology. Part of it, however, harks back to the sister-relationship of death. A sister's house is a place for visits, for taking tea and gossiping—or throwing cups and slamming doors, a grand exit full of pique and refusals. "We don't go there anymore" says the poet (in "Death's House," p. 38) and it's a saying that comes with the echoes of fractured relationships and replacement, for other people are lining up to visit Death's House. Other people live there; they "tread the family carpet, watch the doors". Yet later, in "Sister Death" (p. 46), "We know it's time to visit again" and it's all reminiscences of past lives together, of parties and shared beds and thin walls so that conversations in one room can be heard in the next. The reminiscing isn't kind. It's of a bitter thank-goodness-I'm-well-out-of-it-now sort, an uneasy truce. But if that relationship has notes of realism in it, then they're overshadowed, often, by a text that values a sort of mutual, metaphorical osmosis. In "The Entrance to Death" (p. 64) the same narrator who refuses and remembers crawls over the threshold: "I'm going in. I've been there. I can come back." In "Death's Cameras" (pp. 51-52) it's "Together we'll go back to the living".
But go back to what? Come back as what? As one of the women in "Anthology of the Dead" (p. 40) who gather under an advertising flyer, lured in to tell stories of their own deaths, their own murders? Stories of being strangled, of being framed as a suicide, of the betrayal of sisters and mothers (by sisters and by mothers? or just by daughters?). And these stories they tell—how real are they anyway? Are they just fairy stories of another kind? Ariel the amnesiac mermaid, making things up because "Anyone would forget an event that turned every step into a feeling of knives" (in "Considering Lore," p. 39).
It's a focused collection, Wake, albeit with a focus that blurs to ghost each action with metaphor and myth trailing behind like incense. That focus makes for a very interconnected text that can be a little repetitive but at least is certain of what it is: a study in death and sisterhood, one that stalks behind with a rotting welcome mat.
I read Wake before I read Drink, and really it would have been better to have read them the other way around. Drink appears to be the more foundational work, and large portions of it are dedicated to the portrayal of an abusive, alcoholic mother and the resulting suicide attempt of a sister. The effects of alcohol, of drink, are contrasted in this collection with the imagery of—and poems on—mermaids. It seems an odd combination, at first, and one that relies on wordplay—in the drink, on the drink, and so on. Bottles piling up in the rubbish bin of a cheap motel room; bottles sinking to the ocean floor and being used as toys. Empty bottles broken up and used for art; empty bottles filled with seawater and messages.