July 27, 2014

Who is Authored?: A Review of Sara Biggs Chaney's Precipice Fruit by Michael VanCalbergh

cover credit: ELJ Publications
Precipice Fruit by Sara Biggs Chaney
ELJ Publications (2013)

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

The best place to start talking about Sara Biggs Chaney’s poetry chapbook, Precipice Fruit, is with the afterward. In a courageous and rarely seen (in poetry) break of the “fourth wall,” Chaney addresses the readers of her poems to provide an insight into some of the intentions behind her poems.

The two biggest insights into Chaney’s work are that “every child has a personhood” and that she is not writing a book about autism but “a work of imagination, grounded in experience.” This allows Chaney to provide a variety of voices to the subject because the poems are her own creations, not poetic representation of her experience. At the end, she asks three questions regarding this choice: “Who is Jenna,” “Who authors Jenna,” and “What should matter to us more? The institutional story of the child, or the child’s story of herself?”

Jenna is the autistic child whose presence ripples through each poem. Chaney balances three sets of voices that seek to define Jenna. The first set includes the doctors and teachers that refer to Jenna by a set of afflictions or to “normal” behavior. From the second poem in the collection that tells us there are “possible markers of genetic disorder” to the last poem, which provides a 5th grade report card, Chaney includes a variety of found material that portrays how the world outside views autistic children.

The outside world’s observations start many of the poems and allow Chaney to use Jenna’s mother as a balance or reaction. The two blason of Jenna are perfect examples of responses to the doctors’ jargon. In “Blason for Jenna (II),” Chaney presents a new way of understanding the technical terms of diagnosis. She explains:
Hydrocephalic—head—of water.
Your head is a fountain
held by tender skin.

 Hypotonic—low tone.
Your arms and legs
are the soft ending
of a nighttime song.

 Echolalic—echo voice.
Your mouth, a seashell
speaking the ocean’s story.

Chaney uses the mother’s voice to provide moments of absolute beauty with Jenna—“her mouth sings / easy sound, sweet innard / of a thousand little thunders”—to incredibly visual terror—“Jenna’s ribs arch & chase / a magnet to the ceiling. / Her joints do circus tricks.” With this second poetic voice, Jenna is less clinical and more human.

Readers also see a mother’s vulnerability as she imagines her child as “cliffside fruit” in the title poem “Precipice Fruit.” As the speaker metaphorically hangs onto the last vein of her previous life, she takes in the “one      tiny            beautiful thing” that hangs there with her: her daughter. Chaney writes, “Reach for it and fall. / Don’t reach for it, and fall.”
Jenna, in the beginning of the book, is not a real person, merely the subject of poems. Halfway through the book, the readers may expect a continuation of the mother’s voice and the clinical coldness of medical records. Although a fantastic way to construct a collection, Chaney does not stop there. She stretches her imagination further and gives voice to Jenna. She states, “Jenna teaches / another way / to be here”. Jenna’s voice is superbly constructed when she states, “I kiss the glass, / make it shiver. // I kiss outside.” Even when Jenna is “writing a script for a television show” or sitting on “a black leather couch next to Charley,” the voice is a child’s.

Giving Jenna the space to express herself through the latter half of the book emphasizes the problem with trying to represent someone else’s experiences who may not have the ability to do so themselves. A balance is created by giving Jenna a unique voice without making her a caricature of disability or childhood. Chaney allows the space for Jenna to be the author of her own story, not a subject in someone else’s.

Giving space to Jenna to tell the story of herself allows readers to see autism as another state of being and not just “an idea of a girl / dancing in a fountain.” Therefore, the mingling of different voices gives a balanced insight into the world of autism. With every experience represented—doctor, teacher, mother, child—we are left inhabiting the life Chaney has created instead of just reading about it.

Chaney takes a remarkable step toward allowing a deeper understanding of how another person, seemingly incredibly different from us, could be considering the world. As Jenna says at the end, “You might like to know: / I have my own strategies. / I am practicing every day”.

July 5, 2014

Rough Beasts: A Review of Lisa Mangini’s Slouching Towards Entropy by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Finishing Line Press

Rough Beasts: A Review of Lisa Mangini’s Slouching Towards Entropy by Angele Ellis

Slouching Towards Entropy by Lisa Mangini
Finishing Line Press (2014)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Lisa Mangini imagines the slow but inevitable destruction of the world in poems whose small but stunning revelations recall both the foreboding of W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In Mangini’s work as in Didion’s, “… drifting, inarticulate children… take on… an almost allegorical significance. They are the pitiful casualties of an immense and perhaps inexplicable social change—an ‘atomization’ prophesied by Yeats” (as Joyce Carol Oates said of Didion’s essays in a 1977 New York Times Book Review).

Mangini—a poetry and fiction writer, as well as founding editor of the journal Paper Nautilus—begins Slouching Toward Entropy with a whimper that has the force of a bang. In “A Bird in the Hand,” the speaker transforms the fall of a sparrow into a portent of doom observed not by any god, but by a child whose innocence is drowned by the experience:
… I was ten; I did not know
names of birds or even painters—I couldn’t spot

the angle of her neck and call it “Picasso-esque”
as I might now. I could hardly feel
the weight of her in my hand, her hollow bones,
matted feathers, light as a Styrofoam cup.
Throughout this book, Mangini’s beasts—children and adults, bees, and recurrently, birds—are continually degraded by contact with the detritus of civilization, both high and low. In this poetic landscape, the animate and the inanimate are irrevocably connected—all are fungible objects; “[L]ight as Styrofoam cup” is as haunting an image as the “Picasso-esque” angle of the dead sparrow’s neck. And Mangini’s harrowing “The Statement” follows two young women who have been celebrating Halloween in a club (“…doused in sweat and glitter… feather boas / shedding and sticking to our skin”) as they are subjected to a rape that, in Mangini’s description, is a brutal consequence of our decaying cosmos. The “spare electron” in the following passage recalls Yeats’s “atomization”:
… both of us thrashed to a sandpaper
sidewalk, separated by thirty feet
       of space and a ring of men: three
       to each girl, and one that floated
between us, like a spare electron, like a dog
torn between two bones.
The poem ends with the speaker whose sternum has been broken, giving a “statement” for herself and the friend who has sustained a shattered jaw. But the terse last lines (“… She won’t be talking / for a long time. / Yes, we / were the only witnesses”) describe the damage done to both women, and beyond them to all victims of rape.

A rape that culminates in murder is the subject of “Matthew,” a meditation on Matthew Shepard in which the poet transforms Shepard’s infamous, grotesque death into a stark, contemporary “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Mangini’s use of lower-case staccato phrases separated by white space like tombstones and her bell-like repetition of the word “think” emphasize the poem’s elegiac quality:
think breath,    contagious             as breath itself,
cascading through tissue       since birth,
think passage through fissure of flesh,
like you.

while i’m strung up in confessions
of the last sunset              while i wonder
what will they think when they write my eulogy?
In a sense, Mangini herself is writing a eulogy for what it is to be human—including philosophy, in which the poet finds no consolation. “The Museum of Philosophy” references the speaker’s collection of Kant, Schopenhauer, Camus, and de Beauvoir, only to conclude that “… there is no wise passage waiting to keep me company… all of this, and not one / of these things capable of welcoming me home.” And in “Letter to Descartes,” the speaker—with wry, ironic sympathy—chides the philosopher for believing only in the reality of the mind. The voice that imagines Descartes’s grief over the death of his young daughter, Francine, encompasses both philosopher and poet, and tests his limitations along with her own:
…But that’s all corporeal stuff, Rene,
and it’s ok if you counted over and over again
the twenty-four right angles of her tiny casket
to convince yourself that you were uncertain

if you even cried at all.
Science, on the other hand, provides Mangini with a weirdly joyous companion on the path to entropy. In “Einstein’s Prophecy Loosely Penetrates My Nightmare,” Einstein’s prediction that the extinction of bees would soon result in the extinction of humans merges with a nightmare of lost teeth and angry wasps. The speaker’s unnamed friend or lover manages to convince her that the threat is, for the time being, imaginary through a rare gesture of release and some comforting words:
…You opened my window,
easy as a fortune cookie, knowing to discard
whatever hidden wisdom buzzed
inside. At my distress, you offered:
They’re not bees. Useless. They’ll never
yield a drop of honey.
And in “I Must Have Been Nikola Tesla in Another Life,” the speaker is positively giddy. She moves from “want[ing] to be surrounded in yellow” to “Central Europe, Eastern Europe, where-ever / someplace Slavic calls for me” to the jolt of an electrical high that approaches the ecstasy she imagines Tesla to have experienced. Her enthusiasm runs like direct current through the following passage:
…I am tempted
to lick the wall socket, to taste the blue light. This is not
synesthesia; you are simply not understanding me.
I touch everything in grocery stores with wonder.
But the high does not last. At its core, Slouching Towards Entropy is an exquisitely muted meditation on death—spiritual and physical—as well as the relentless winding down of existence. Mangini is compelling when describing the cessation of everything—as when poet and reader become one with the dwindling, solitary observer in “Bird Watching at the End of the World (ii),” which contains the book’s title phrase:
… It is upon us. I was expecting a short fuse
and a loud bang. Of course: it is this very lack
of vigor in all things that informs me of this ending.
It is this slow wilt, this calm unlacing of the corset
that holds the world together—that we have always
been slouching towards entropy, without noticing.