May 10, 2014

I Am the Eggplant: A Review of Lindsay Lusby's Imago by Michael VanCalbergh

cover credit: dancing girl press
Imago by Lindsay Lusby
dancing girl press (2014)

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

Lindsay Lusby’s debut chapbook Imago, from dancing girl press, is steeped in fairy tale and myth. In fact, her work has absorbed so much magic that readers could swear to have heard a version of this story before, but quickly find that this book fills what has been missing from contemporary mythology.

Lusby’s chapbook is comprised of only the title poem broken into sections. These sections—which include parts numbered 1 ½, 2 ½, and 4 ¾—immediately challenge established ideas of what a sectioned poem can be. Her sections allow readers to see separate parts of a larger poem, but also create an increased intimacy between the poems with the same base number. It is striking how brilliantly the first two poems (1 and 1 ½) stand completely apart, yet seem to naturally form from each other like conjoined twins.

Lusby’s book contains the classic myth of transformation with the unique twist of imago’s double meaning: the transformation to the adult stage in an insect’s life and a psychoanalysis in which the idealization of a loved one carries into adulthood. In the beginning of the book, readers experience the psychoanalysis concept of imago as the girl strokes an eggplant to sleep. Lusby writes:
It becomes the absence, she thinks.
Pulls the remnant of light from
every bedroom shadow
and buries it inside, condenses it.
The admiration expressed here sets up a reverence that the girl feels for the eggplant in lieu of an actual family member. Immediately afterward, she considers the “blasphemous” idea of eating the eggplant’s seeds and asks, “Would I be changed? Would I transform?” Lusby’s twist of the multiple meanings of imago implants the idealization of the eggplant and the transformation the girl yearns for into a brand new definition. The similarity to common myths not only makes this indistinguishable from the stories readers are familiar with, but grows a new garden in our imaginations perfect for cultivating eggplant.

The reason for the unlikely relationship between a vegetable and a girl becomes clearer as readers see the mother who “did not leave a note / or a casserole” replaced by the “smooth purple skin, blacker than black” of the eggplant in almost every way. The parent-child relationship starts with Lusby expertly inserting the eggplant as a base of knowledge:
The eggplant teaches the girl about the afterlife.

It says, When we die, we all go to
the great compost bucket, where we
experience the transcendence of
our own beautiful decomposition.
After the eggplant’s patience in sharing answers (it is hard not to imagine the girl asking these questions with the fury of a growing child), the girl quickly strives to imitate this stand-in parent when she decides to “dye her hair / a deep, deep purple” and even becomes a carnivore to avoid the eyes of her salad “accusing her of countless atrocities” committed to vegetable-kind.

Their relationship culminates in the only thing left that the eggplant can possibly teach the girl: metamorphosis. The connection between a parent ushering the child to adulthood and the literal preparations the girl makes are unmistakable:
The girl eats and eats to prepare herself. She
thinks of this as packing a suitcase.

The girl zips herself inside an aubergine
sleeping bag on the living room floor.
Counts back from one hundred and
closes her eyes.

The eggplant tells her a bedtime story.

It says, This is the beginning.
Imago’s transformation definition returns full-force as the girl literally acts out the part of an insect entering the pupa stage. For the girl, it is not merely a step into adulthood, but a Big Bang that creates a completely new understanding of the world and her place in it. As she transforms, the eggplant “begins to wilt and shrink” literally sacrificing itself and becoming “emptied, a deflated / black balloon on the living room floor.” This unconditional sacrifice leads to nothing short of the revolution readers have been promised from the very first page, as the girl emerges “asteroid and bright.”

Even with this understanding of transformation, it seems impossible to express the immensity of Lusby’s book. Reinventing the tale of a girl’s transformation into womanhood, commentary on traditional mythology, conflicts with sexual expression and a person’s relationship to an idealized self are only a handful of possibilities these poems explore. Lusby’s ability to create such intricate poems with apparent ease makes her poems become new with each reading and leaves readers wishing to return. Imagoachieves the adult stage that all poems strive for: It transforms readers into a “series of continuous atomic explosions / bright as hydrogen.”

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