Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“You is almost always me,” Verlee writes, in a poem on poetry, saying how “The things I write . . . are pieces of my dying” and also that “When something dies, it’s my mind. / When something soars, my mind / When something is trembling, screaming, / or trying to jump in a river, // my mind.”
The mind is the matter here, frequently, and the strongest poems give voice to disquiet states of the mind. We hear the compulsively flexing, napalm-and-bourbon growl of mania (“Ravenous. Loaded.... I’m bigger than God.”), and insomnia’s imperatives, strung together as disembodied quotes: “Edit this” and “Payment is late” and “Don’t stress,” that last one repeating, a frenzied leitmotif. In “Good Girl,” Verlee employs compounding parentheticals to offer an anxious accounting of the work of each morning’s pills: “(So the voices won’t scream)” on up to “(So I don’t riot.).”
If it behooves the characters of these poems to stay calm, focused, away from knives, it’s generally far better reading when the blades come out, the hatchets and the teeth, the words of conjure, the “iron-fanged wrath.” “How a mad girl pops and sizzles,” says a piece frothing with such wild energy. Later we hear how a narrator “ripped open a tin can / with my own hands, cursed a man at the bagel cart.” These voices locate themselves in—and speak from—a tradition of female power, female uncontrollability, particularly keyed to that paradox of milk-giver and death-dealer danced into one form, from Kali to the biblical Jezebel, here reimagined at the head of armies of men gone mad with envy and desire. As “a holy woman of Ba’al,” Jezebel reflects on her own name, hammered into a vernacular derogative for our times, but resonant with far deeper currents. Jezebel, saith Jezebel, “means whore. Means raggedy-dance. / Means black jasmine, means sweat, stamen, ovary. Means pearl / in the wet lap of oysters. My name means ruby-lipped.”
Engagement with the word magic, with curse-formulas and incantations, recurs. One narrator wishes us “Closet stuffed with too-small shoes. / Flat beer. Sour milk. Weak coffee. I wish you flat tired, / soggy pasta, a tax audit to fail. Bent forks, dull knives.” But Verlee is also interested in those moments when all voices go silent in the thrum of blood, of fear and rage. Hers is a world of constant threat, where female strength is flipside and necessary response to female vulnerability, to men outside bars and inside apartments wanting to hurt, to open, to break women in their sights. In the book’s most gripping poem, a painfully visceral read, Verlee details an intervention in an assault, a fight and a disaster, a catastrophe in real time outside a bar at night, “because this is happening. Right now, this is real.” This is poetry conveying the madness of emotion and event: manic poetry, screaming until the reader is forced to join in the scream.
In another strong poem, the elaborate gambit titled, “Wherein the Author Provides Footnotes and Bibliographic Citation for the First Stanza Drafted After a Significant and Dangerous Depression Incurred Upon Being Referenced as a ‘Hack’ Both by Individuals Unknown to the Author and by Individuals Whom the Author Had Previously Considered Friends,” Verlee takes the tack of poetry as calm and reflective and picks at it obsessively, making the text bleed footnotes and a scholarly apparatus, from the title itself, which is supported by a list of “Absurdist elongated title style (samples)” from Wordsworth to Aptowicz. There is an unsettled and unsettling effervescence here.
But there is also something like friendship, like support. “Say it plain. Say it outright,” we are reminded. And even in poems that give voice the blade-desiring and self-destructive voices, there is a voice threaded through that counsels survival, that urges us to stay whole, even in the midst of chaos, crisis, terror, self-blame, self-loathing, and constant threat: “Look what you’ve done. You ruined everything. You’re ok.” That refrain, the whisper of “You’re ok” can be read as salve and chant, as medicine and weapon.
Official Jeanann Verlee Web Site
Official Write Bloody Publishing Web Site