November 29, 2014

The Intoxicating Risks of a Poet’s Painful Blossoming: A Review of Lisa Marie Basile's Apocryphal by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Noctuary Press
Apocryphal by Lisa Marie Basile
Noctuary Press (2014)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

There is a solid, if not sometimes discomfiting, legacy of women poets taking ownership of victimization, familial or societal, within the larger sexual, emotional, and political playing fields of their generation. Sylvia Plath gave us the overbearing “Daddy,” Ann Sexton celebrated her body and moments of sensual reverie taken for madness, and Sharon Olds shared portraits of her family’s damaged and damaging patriarchs. How can we not admire Marie Howe’s “Mary Magdalene,” in a clever twist of self-declaration in citing the seven sins cast out of her (including: “The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong / to anyone. // Historians would assume my sin was sexual.”) or, in another poem, Magdalene’s ticking off the physical peculiarities and personalities of each male phallus she encounters.

In Apocryphal, the ambitious first full-length collection by Lisa Marie Basile, the poet creates a noirish tale against a surreal landscape that mingles (or perhaps blurs) memory and nostalgic illusion—a stylized series of personal and disturbing episodes. Before the larger narrative begins, an isolated section that serves as a preface provides clues to an evolving, pained history that precursors the narrator’s own flowering and debasement (“as a child his mother took an iron to him good, strangled / him in curtain cords.    so I’m your mother now // give it to me good.”). She states: “I am not like everyone else’s child, I learned early of toil & kink: little girl    bambi girl    sprawl for me / and I learned early all the men who want bambi…” But whether this transformation actually took place can be interpreted, like the title of the collection, as apocryphal in nature. She adds: “it might be the truth,    or not.   that is up to you.”

It is an intriguing, if not unsettling, start to a tale that often flickers across the page in vintage iconography (the douse of cologne, cabinets filled with booze, hands posed with cigarettes, scarved coiffures and boat-like sedans) and fragmented sexual encounters. It begins, Dali-like, with a dream-state of images:
When I sleep nude on sands, I open
my mouth so a whole man could get in, so you
could get in,
& stretching, I realize there is nothing but blackcoral,
          wrapping this body of me,

parts parting,

taken with you or taken by you. I wear the both of us,

as golden hoops in my ears.   the skin
is stretching all over the place, my hands are the hives,
& I smell of high valley fire.
o, it is very young of me to spill myself like this, a pearl
necklace snapped off by drunken blackness
     so dizzied
by the rotary tone of you.
There is a continual metamorphosis of the body, whether of the narrator’s or other female and male figures. These references approach the rhythms of spiritual service, a perversion of communion that can startle with violence (“my body of bark, my body of body // the salt, the sound of          hollow. // this legion, this inner summer. //I awake to you   my prayer  forcing me / with fists.”). In two other sequences:
our fathers and mothers make us holy
             in their form.

the form is       my fingers            inside myself
& then in your mouth.

you put them there, you did it.

you drink me, a little hair, a little salt.
my body tastes like the afternoon & I’m bent
in the shape of a woman, but I am not a woman.

you decide what I am. (p 35)

the small white dress I wear when the pain comes,
     with the stains on it.          this is my body.
this is my body.         this is my body. the sick
and the summer.        the air of a thousand men

blown up inside.        I live inside crates shipped
across the sea.         I venom good things. (p 85)
Although Apocryphal’s poems wander across the pages in a continuous release, without separate titles or standard formatting, there is a subtle application of style to break up or contain the book’s epic energies. This helps to “ground” the reader, temperamentally, as we experience the emotional interiors and exteriors of a life being revisited, shared, and self-investigated. On pages 26, 43, and 49 the narratives are presented as if boxed, like progressive, confessional pit-stops with the cinematic aplomb of capturing close-up monologues. In the first, we are told: “I keep growing & getting bigger, & my hair is soilblack now, … when you put your hands on my waist you say baby is this you?” and a remembered (or fantasized) night of shimmering light leads to an inflated sexuality but diminishing self and death of identity. In the second, we learn “I am afraid of photographs. I am ashamed they will show / where I really came from …” and again, intimacy is a force to be reckoned with from outside and within. The third is printed as two “boxes” separated by two lines that take us from “backstage” to the moment of her delivery to an on-screen persona, and that embodies the pageantry of rite (spiritual as well as theatrical). The narrator shares:
…                I have spent my entire life & all of its suffering
both as spectator and subject. a woman trapped eternally as a
child waiting for the holy father.

when he approaches I am cinema, a conquering, validation,
revolver and good mascara. he says,  you are beautiful.
With its edgy cinematic qualities, cast of familial and possibly invented characters, and shadowy events, Apocryphal effectively integrates noirish imagery and lyricism (“this woman is / a despicable thing / on our glossy sofa… those lashes / that bouffant:    a cage // an apron / an earring / a man / & a briefcase, // dead face down,    olive oil thighs …”). Told through a Fellini-esque lens, this is a woman’s odyssey of desire, shame, assertion, and redemption through telling her story with her own words, the truth present even in distortion. After all, whoever promised that grief, rage, or the excruciating process of healing and survival could ever truly be decipherable?

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