A Review of Mary McMyne’s Wolf Skin

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A Review of Mary McMyne’s Wolf Skin

By Jennifer Dane Clements

We remember best that which haunts us. The memories or fears that we carry, percolate in our bloodstreams. As children, the unknown and unknowable facets of the world succumb to dreamscapes of mythical proportions, allowing us to be haunted by things ordinary and alive: the toothy jags of a broken window, an attic portrait with a traveling gaze, the gnarled witch and her warty moral to the story. As children, we await their instruction, understanding that which haunts us to have a strange and beguiling power.

It is with this in mind that Mary McMyne frames Wolf Skin, a chapbook of poems from the voice of a woman whose own childhood was steeped in the twists and vines of the old German fairy tales. Now, grown, the echoes of the tales return to her as commentary to her daily life and reminders from long ago.

The most harrowing of these echoes advises the woman to “Be not girl . . . but wolf.” Those who do not become wolves, speaks the memory of her mother, are little more than dolls, “dumb as porcelain.” As though one’s evolution through personhood is a journey built on unpleasant binaries: vicious or inert, brave or in need of rescue.

In the titular poem, we come to understand the huntsman from “Little Red Riding Hood” embellished his tale of heroism from something more closely approximating a sad act of butchery, his liberated victims still reeling from shock and too disoriented to mutter more than a few words. There were no great thanks or praise, no ceremonies, and the trophy he claimed to have taken from his heroic deed. The “wolf skin” of the poem and of the collection’s title speaks to the assumed persona, the larger-than-life fiction we cloak ourselves in to satisfy some notion of bravery, of gender, of morality.

Childhoods are fascinated with dark spaces and mystery, and lean with curiosity towards danger. In McMyne’s retelling of these familiar tales, we’re reminded of the darker themes lurking behind characters we’ve come to associate with youthful innocence: death, isolation, pain. And so we encounter the wolf lurking at the doorstep where a girl laps at her popsicle, the prince who’s been cursed to live as a hedgehog, the pregnant and yearning princess captive in her tower.

Indeed these reminders often deal in fierceness–how it can be assumed or appropriated, how growth and heroism seem intertwined. And, perhaps most importantly, how these values and lessons transcend and permeate into our time, today, where still we find what’s necessary at odds with what makes for a compelling hero’s tale.

The collection begins and ends with the image of a moth, from the mother’s collection, perfect and asphyxiated, pinned to a corkboard. As an expression of both the fairy tales she illustrates and of the book itself, this image carries acute resonance: delicate, inquisitive, and a tinge darker than people might expect.

Mary McMyne, Wolf Skin. Dancing Girl Press, 2014: $7.00

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Jennifer Clements is a writer of all sorts based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been featured in publications including Barrelhouse, Hippocampus, WordRiot, Psychopomp, and on stages in DC and New York. She is a prose editor of ink&coda and writes regularly for Luna Luna Magazine and DC Theatre Scene. She holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. Visit her online at www.jennifer-dane-clements.com.

A Review of Lena Divani’s Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat

Lena Divani Seven Lives

A Review of Lena Divani’s Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat
Translated from the Greek by Konstantinos Matsoukas

By Jennifer Dane Clements

Forget, for a moment, the ubiquitous internet cats. Put aside the grumpy one, the cross-eyed one, the dwarf one with extra toes, the one who slides through empty boxes. Let’s get the hard part out of the way: This is a novel from a cat’s perspective, offered up at a time when cats have gone strangely viral. But unlike so much hipster-cat culture, this work takes itself seriously.

Indeed, Lena Divani’s Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat (translated by Konstantinos Matsoukas)—smart, earnest, and not without a healthy dollop of  whimsy—comes closer to anthrozoology than anything to do with a cheezburger.

Welcome to a world in which humans are given names like Madam Sweetie or The Damsel, and our protagonist—a stark white stray on the last of his lives—is called Zach. Cultured and articulate enough to merit entry into the feline intelligentsia, Zach leads the reader through his consciousness with the cadence and tone of a Liam Neeson or Jude Law, something deep, whisky-stained, and British. Perceptive, literate, and not so subtly arrogant, our narrator understands from the moment he’s born into a feral cat colony that he’s destined for greatness, and in his first breath decries his mother and his siblings as lesser-than.

Zach sees himself as a muse in the making, seeking to position himself as the newest entry into the canon of cat/writer relations: “According to all credible sources, all writers, great and small, talented and mediocre, have been good friends to us. Edgar Allan Poe, Colette, Balzac, Patricia Highsmith, Emmanuel Roides, even the demented Philip K. Dick, they all drew inspiration from us.” His literary aspirations lead Zach to accompany two well-to-do writers in their Athens flat, where he attempts to edge his way into their hearts and writings.

But humans are a challenging breed: We overcomplicate, we go against nature, we don’t open ourselves to others. “Your delusion that you are masters of this universe has become plain ridiculous, already,” Zach tells us. “You have made your life unlivable. You’ve become suspicious. You are scared to touch humans in case they bite your arm off. You are friendless. And thus, you have need of us. Whereas we once approached you for food, you now beg us for some sustenance for your deprived soul.”

Yet Zach has mythologized these complexities in such a way that he wants nothing more than to earn human love. He indicts mankind in one breath, then romanticises his particular human in the next.

And therein lies the heart of Seven Lives: That to love is to observe, often without understanding. To let those observations not interfere with affection but to strengthen it, to challenge its simplicity, to acknowledge imperfections as a part of the adored. That perhaps those we love most are always a foreign species, in one way or another, subject to study and examination through the curious act of loving.

The cat’s love in Seven Lives is pure and fearless, but never uninformed. We readers could take from this a lesson or two: how the smallest of encounters can mark others in profound ways; how we may judge in abstractions and love in specifics. In its quirky, unapologetic way, Divani’s novel is a lesson in considering the needs, the wants, and the perspectives of those utterly unlike ourselves, and how that consideration makes us yet more capable of empathy, more capable of becoming increasingly attuned to our own experience. And ultimately—if we may say so without insult to our feline friends—more human.

Lena Divani, Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat. Europa Editions, 2014: $15.95.

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Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiotNerve, and Psychopomp and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and elsewhere. Clements currently serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. More at jennifer-dane-clements.com.

A Review of Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar

Pierce Girls of Peculiar

A Review of Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar

By Jennifer Dane Clements

Catherine Pierce’s second poetry collection, The Girls of Peculiar, resurrects the gangly and awkward ghosts of adolescence, in turns honoring and questioning those young spectres. Indeed, it is impossible to read The Girls of Peculiar and not consider one’s own unglamorous coming-of-age, from the sensation of “a globe welling up inside” to “that red ache that came from lying/to our mothers.”

For me, The Girls of Peculiar harkened back to the brick school buildings and blue carpeted halls where my own teenage years were spent. But Pierce’s words ring universal:

Last year you weighed more. This year you’re as tall
as you’ll get, and there’s a boy whose eyes are poisoned
marbles. You’ve photographed him again and again
but you can’t get the poison right. You’re sixteen.
You say this again and again but you can’t believe it.
(Fire Blight)

I went to a high school built by women, for women. There were the things we were told, that we were strong and intelligent and the leaders of tomorrow, and would not be stifled by gender inequity. We were taught by incredible women and introduced to women who defied the expectations of the world. We were bound to the women who had walked those carpeted halls before us, phantoms of girls past that we, like our predecessors, were destined to become.

We never cooled
with twilight. We were busy prowling
by the river; sending our lit eyes into tree hollows,
beneath parked cars.
(The Delinquent Girls)

And there were the things we knew that we didn’t have to say, that perhaps our parents and teachers didn’t wish to acknowledge. Some of us had eating disorders, or inflicted self-harm, or saw shrinks for diagnoses we didn’t have to secure medications we didn’t need. We identified as adults in ways that ranged from noble to naive. We had sex with older men. We pulled all-nighters on school grounds with the strange and forbidden blessing of our teachers. We hung out in rough parts of town, oblivious to how our uniforms marked us as young and entitled and unattainable in ways we couldn’t know. We wielded our small rations of power in a dozen micro-rebellions a day, then tucked in our shirttails and learned algebra.

We were all flavors of adolescent girl kept in one place, and nothing has quite captured that dynamic as accurately as The Girls of Peculiar.

But I’m so tired of the small steps–
the pentatonic scale, the frequent flyer
hoarding, the one exquisite sentence
in a forest of exquisite sentences.
There is a globe welling up inside of me.
Mountain ranges ridging my skin,
oceans filling my mouth. If I stay still
long enough, I could become my own world.
(Because I’ll Never Swim in Every Ocean)

Poems like “Dear Self I Might Have Been,” “Before the Reunion (Her Lament),” and “Postcards from her Alternate Lives,” look backward, from a vantage point informed by several decades. Resisting the nostalgic, they instead acknowledge the difficulties of youth, moving into the “long highway days of your twenties” and beyond. Each of these poems serves as a postscript to old yearbooks, answering the question of what we’ll become: One girl writes speeches for the First Lady. One girl married the bus driver. One works for the CIA. One remains a virgin at 30.

For some of us, the school-age moments feel lifetimes old; for some of us, as close as this morning’s latte. But The Girls of Peculiar has nothing to do with wanting to return to those days–its poems are elegies, truthful monuments to the myths, the expectations, and the anxieties we carried in youth.

This is every house on your block
lit from within, each bedroom window
shining with safety and you outside
in the icing dusk, knowing nothing
will ever warm you….
The Future? This is The Future
If you were here, you’d know that.
(The Girls We Were)

Twelve years past high school, I am tempted to wrap a copy of The Girls of Peculiar and send it to my school’s newly appointed headmaster, the first woman to oversee the school in decades. Pierce’s collection seems the briefest and most comprehensive reminder of how burgeoning adulthood feels to “the delinquent girls,” and “the quiet girls,” and “the drama girls,” and then all of them together–a manual of understanding and a call to empathy.

Let these strangenesses be like the impossible lizard’s
tail: gone forever, because how could it be otherwise,

and then reappearing, iridescent and blood-warmed,
because how could it be otherwise?
(For This You Have No Reason)

And what could be more vital to someone newly charged with overseeing all of those girls, and all of the peculiars in which they–for the moment–reside.

 

Catherine Pierce, The Girls of Peculiar. Saturnalia Books, 2012: $14.00.

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Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiot, Nerve, and Psychopomp and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and elsewhere. Clements currently works at a theatre-service organization and serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. More at jennifer-dane-clements.com.

A Review of Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room

Cousins Potato Room

A Review of Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room

by Jennifer Dane Clements

Something in the Potato Room, the book-length poem that won Heather Cousins the Kore Press First Book Award, is an unexpected ars poetica. It is about many things, but ultimately about moments that surprise and redefine us. The constraints that birth new freedoms.

These constraints stripe each page: lines or coffins or boundaries, asking the reader to look beyond. Boredom. Routine. Depression. Sometimes—adulthood. Stillness is a rope, solitude a tether. We enter this book with an unnamed character bound by each of these things, exhausted by the details of her own routine:

“A pot of
paperwhites. A green
mug. A bottle of ibuprofen
and a sheet of Sudafed, the
little red gems sealed in foil.”

It is a dead boy, emerging from the basement earth, that breaks from his own hiding place and ultimately pulls the unnamed character from hers. Sometimes you are the skeleton buried in the basement of a newly purchased home. Sometimes you are the homeowner buried in the minutia of a tedious job and a solitary life. The unexpected makes you feel suddenly “pink/and full of skin.”

Sometimes a poem is a constraint. Sometimes a book. Mutual exclusivity can have that feeling too—the entrapment of either/or. We feel it for the unnamed character, and for Cousins too—for her poem that won’t be tucked in to notions of brevity, for her anthropologist’s eye for charts and medical illustrations and the things they only suggest.

We see the tidy boxes, squares and rectangles of text on the page, holding in what needs to be suppressed.

And we see the things that emerge from constraint. A discovery, an adventure. An excuse not to dress and go to work. A skeleton in the basement of a house. Death reimagined into life—and this doesn’t just mean the skeleton. The book, too, emerges from the brevity and smallness expected from the word poem. The book is a poem, the poem is a book, and the bones of a dead boy swim through layers of basement dirt to the surface to insist these constraints are all imagined.

“It seemed as if it hurt—
the coming-back-to-life.
Like frozen toes in hot
water. The ache and
shiver of blood breaking
from its sluggish sleep.”

The skeleton is dead, then reborn through imagined story. The unnamed character is alive without playing a part in her own existence. That thing that we expect, that very simple fulfillment of definition, is shut down and broken apart.

“Life
doesn’t stay still, and
death doesn’t stay still ei-
ther”

And here, still, are the things that can be made whole from the dirt, from the seeming emptiness of an unsatisfying routine. Here is a poem that was made a book, the skeleton made flesh through Cousins’s imagining.

Heather Cousins, Something in the Potato Room, Kore Press, 2009: $12.99.

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Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiot, Nerve, and Psychopomp (forthcoming) and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and others. Clements currently works at a theatre-service organization and serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. jennifer-dane-clements.com.

A Review of Patrick Lawler’s Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds

Patrick Lawler Rescuers of Skydivers

A Review of Patrick Lawler’s Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds
by Jennifer Dane Clements

Not long ago I saw a photo collection: Two brothers who took one picture every year in the same month, the same pose. They did this for decades, their entire lives distilled in these portraits. In 1994 they wear matching sweaters. In 2001 they look unkempt. Each photograph asks the onlooker to imagine what happened between each set of images–why did he lose weight, why wasn’t he smiling more. The positioning grows expected, even stale: older brother here, younger brother here, chair, table, lamp. Except, as we grow closer to the now, we see the paint has started to chip on the wall, and the lampshade was replaced, and somewhere, somehow, two young boys grew into men.

The framework remains unchanged, the details shift in the smallest of ways. But the overall effect creates nostalgia for suggested things, unseen things, palpable just beneath the surface.

It’s a difficult thing to accomplish, and it’s what Patrick Lawler’s first novel, Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds, spends its pages exploring: The spaces between and underneath. The economy of storytelling. The onus on the viewer to participate in unpacking questions, and meanings, and movements.

Composed in a series of tightly wrought chapters–some a mere three sentences long–the story follows a young narrator and his family, in a small, anonymous town, with small, anonymous descriptors. They seem to both live in and hover over the landscape. The important things are named and renamed, redefined as they change–or as the narrator’s perspective on them changes. Those named things become the notable landmarks of the novel, their evolution or transformation or renaming emblematic of the narrator’s own journey and perspective on those around him.

Lawler says it explicitly: “Our stories repeat themselves endlessly around us–ultimately revising who we are every time.”

It feels at once like reading the same chapter over and over again with certain words replaced, but this heightens the effect of those changed words and phrases. The same photograph, with things just a little older, a little changed. We begin in “the year they named the streets after the elements,” moves into “the year my parents began speaking in a strange language” and “the year we practiced for emergencies.” By the end, the repeated frameworks have become as nostalgic as old photos — in them, we see the history of all the shifts the narrator and the reader have together experienced. And in the rare deviations, we see the narrator looking beyond, departing: “‘This is where we are,’ he said, but his mouth was filled with uncertainty.”

The reader is forced to consider her own story in patterns and revisions, in names and malleable perspectives. I consider my own: The year that smelled of pool water and talcum powder. The year our neighbor’s daughter asked Santa for a penis. The year I drove in circles hoping to get lost, and failing. How best to crystallize time and experience in ways that approximate truth.

Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds is a poet’s fiction, but it’s an artist’s fiction too—because the brevity and economy of language makes the act of reading this novel something beyond reading, because the entire work seems to meditate on how we live in words, how we cohabitate with them in our daily routines and use them as mile-markers for landscapes past. How eventually, we become symbols of the lives we live, and how the uncertainty of detail grants us room to explore.

Patrick Lawler, Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds. University of Alabama Press, 2012: $15.95.

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Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. She has been published in WordRiot and Nerve and her plays have been produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and others. Recipient of the John P. Anderson Award for Playwrights in 2004 and of a 2006 Fulbright fellowship to the Slovak Republic to teach English at the University of Constantine the Philosopher, Clements currently works at a theatre-service organization and serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. She lives with her husband in Washington, DC.