Wake and Drink by Laura Madeline Wiseman
Reviewed by Octavia Cade
30 March 2016
These two poetry collections are reviewed together. There's some similarity between them: both are centred on family and myth, with metaphors both mortuary and marine. Both are worth reading, although if you've only got time for one, I'd recommend you go for Drink. I'll get to that one in a bit.
Wake is the slimmer of the two volumes, and it is primarily concerned with death—specifically, relationships with death. Before death, after death, how monsters approach death and how women do. The last of these is particularly relevant, as Wiseman's death is a woman, come in the form of a sister. This female, familiar perception is not one I've come across often—barring F.G. Haghenbeck's portrayal of Godmother Death in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo, or Death in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, for instance—and it gives an interesting flavour to the text, one that's underlined and simultaneously undercut by the unsympathetic portrayals of corporeal sisters.
"Unsaid Negative Confession: We Hate You" (p. 49) has the poem's narrator screaming her hatred at a sister who stands block-like, impervious. Apparently she feels nothing; the hatred doesn't touch her—which is what you'd expect from a death-sister and not a blood one. Everything dies, and tantrums on the stairs make no difference. The mythological carries on, undisturbed by the messiness of human emotions and accusations. Yet the attraction remains, the sense of family loyalty even if it's one-sided.
"I like monsters" says the poet (in "Preference," p. 56). Yet "My sister is a monster," claims "Barren Monsters," (p. 58) which tells of an abusive relationship between the sister and her partner, a man who hits and pulls her hair, who calls her names. The sister is infertile, presumably because "Monsters and humans can't mate". One would presume, in this case, that it's the partner who is the true monster, but biological femininity will out—the bleeding, the "extra wombs"—for body here defines monstrosity more than action. It's a classification prefigured by early behaviour. The poem "Book of Monsters" (p. 61) states that "As a girl, my sister painted her bedroom's ceiling and walls black". Black, the colour of death, of unconsciousness and falling away, if ever there was one. The monster-sister, building a habitat.
No surprise, then, that this monstrosity is reflected in the death-sister. The walls between realities are narrow things, and easy to split. This is most obvious in the imagery of the death-house. In this world, that house is only visited once, and the door is one way. In Wake, however, the house of death is a place to be visited over and over again as one walks in and out of the underworld, as in myth and legend.
Part of this dual approach is due to the nature of the collection: Wiseman takes a genre-mashing approach, creating a whole out of disparate parts, so that more realistic poems are cheek-by-jowl with explorations of fairy tales (the Little Mermaid and Snow White) and mythology. Part of it, however, harks back to the sister-relationship of death. A sister's house is a place for visits, for taking tea and gossiping—or throwing cups and slamming doors, a grand exit full of pique and refusals. "We don't go there anymore" says the poet (in "Death's House," p. 38) and it's a saying that comes with the echoes of fractured relationships and replacement, for other people are lining up to visit Death's House. Other people live there; they "tread the family carpet, watch the doors". Yet later, in "Sister Death" (p. 46), "We know it's time to visit again" and it's all reminiscences of past lives together, of parties and shared beds and thin walls so that conversations in one room can be heard in the next. The reminiscing isn't kind. It's of a bitter thank-goodness-I'm-well-out-of-it-now sort, an uneasy truce. But if that relationship has notes of realism in it, then they're overshadowed, often, by a text that values a sort of mutual, metaphorical osmosis. In "The Entrance to Death" (p. 64) the same narrator who refuses and remembers crawls over the threshold: "I'm going in. I've been there. I can come back." In "Death's Cameras" (pp. 51-52) it's "Together we'll go back to the living".
But go back to what? Come back as what? As one of the women in "Anthology of the Dead" (p. 40) who gather under an advertising flyer, lured in to tell stories of their own deaths, their own murders? Stories of being strangled, of being framed as a suicide, of the betrayal of sisters and mothers (by sisters and by mothers? or just by daughters?). And these stories they tell—how real are they anyway? Are they just fairy stories of another kind? Ariel the amnesiac mermaid, making things up because "Anyone would forget an event that turned every step into a feeling of knives" (in "Considering Lore," p. 39).
It's a focused collection, Wake, albeit with a focus that blurs to ghost each action with metaphor and myth trailing behind like incense. That focus makes for a very interconnected text that can be a little repetitive but at least is certain of what it is: a study in death and sisterhood, one that stalks behind with a rotting welcome mat.
I read Wake before I read Drink, and really it would have been better to have read them the other way around. Drink appears to be the more foundational work, and large portions of it are dedicated to the portrayal of an abusive, alcoholic mother and the resulting suicide attempt of a sister. The effects of alcohol, of drink, are contrasted in this collection with the imagery of—and poems on—mermaids. It seems an odd combination, at first, and one that relies on wordplay—in the drink, on the drink, and so on. Bottles piling up in the rubbish bin of a cheap motel room; bottles sinking to the ocean floor and being used as toys. Empty bottles broken up and used for art; empty bottles filled with seawater and messages.
Enjoy this new book trailer for David Trinida's new book, Notes on a Past Life!!Read more »
Anne Gorrick's Artistic Flow - Featured in the Hudson Valley's publication, Chronogram!!
The front walk to Anne Gorrick's door has been reclaimed by flowers. As metaphors go, it's a bit obvious, but it does seem delightfully apt that you enter the poet's great rambling ship of a house from the side.
A visual artist as well as a poet, Gorrick's latest collection A's Visuality (BlazeVOX, 2015) cross-pollinates these foci, with two suites of art-themed poems ("FOLIOS" transcribes the texts of 28 artist's books she made from found-object fragments of art criticism; "Chromatic Sweep" riffs on color descriptions from Kingston's R&F Handmade Paints) and encaustic monotypes. Her previous books include the densely brilliant language collages Kyotologic (Shearsman Books, 2008), I-Formation, Book 1 (Shearsman, 2010) and I-Formation, Book 2 (Shearsman 2012); she co-curates the electronic journal Peep/Show with Lynn Behrendt. If this body of work suggests an avant-garde wraith in SoHo black layers and high-concept shoes, think again.
Gorrick opens the door in a loose-weave sweater and blue jeans, trying to corral an exuberant black lab named Einstein, more often called Tiny (he isn't). Her eyes are hyacinth blue, her smile infectious. After a high-exclamation point tour of the home she shares with husband Peter Genovese, she sits in the kitchen, popping up almost immediately to pour Cup of Joy chocolate-mint tea. The fragrant steam blends with the heady scent of home-tapped maple sap evaporating on the stove.
It's one of those Hudson Valley households: Wherever you look, something creative is happening. It might be a partially restored vintage rosewood piano, an antique barber chair, a glass-front cabinet of perfume ingredients next to a writing desk made from a motor-repair bench. There are framed prints on the walls (Cynthia Winika's as well as Gorrick's), work boots next to the woodstove. Two stacks of books line the table: Cassandra Danz's Mrs. Greenthumbs series ("kick-ass gardening books") and several volumes on Greek mythology.
One of Gorrick's new projects involves googling Greek gods and goddesses for pop culture and home product namesakes to plunder for poems. "There's an Aphrodite II double-wide mobile home," she exults. "I'm just entranced. I'm beside myself with how much fun this is."
Gorrick is a frequent flyer in cyberspace, often using the "terrible Internet translator" BabelFish to "pour text back and forth into about 20 different languages." The results are a springboard for high-diving poetics.
Does she worry about accessibility? "I think it's okay for people not to be interested in my work," she says. "There's a million other flavors out there." She's a fervent believer in "doing work to please your best, highest self instead of the marketplace;" her nine-to-five job as a college administrator pays the bills so her art doesn't have to.
Gorrick was born in Poughkeepsie. Her parents moved there from northeastern Pennsylvania when the local coal economy collapsed. Gorrick's father was hired by IBM (which ironically also collapsed); her mother taught science. Gorrick attended Spackenkill High School, where she played competitive tennis and studied classical piano. She describes her love of the arts as a "switched at birth" fluke in her science-prone family. "It was not a household with a lot of poetry books," she says drily.
The gateway drug was Sylvia Plath's Ariel, which she read in junior high. "I didn't even know what she was talking about, but it was so powerful," Gorrick recalls. "I didn't know you could do that with language. It gets into your skin like a scar." Then she discovered Tristan Tzara's Dada poems, which opened a door to experimental poetics. She pursued a traditional English degree at SUNY New Paltz, but had "the nagging sensation there must be something else." She found it in Clayton Eshleman's seminal periodical Sulfur: A Literary Tri-Annual of the Whole Art. "I thought, this is the community I want to be writing in."
It seems safe to say that she got her wish. Gorrick and poet Sam Truitt just edited In|Filtration: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry from the Hudson River Valley (Station Hill of Barrytown, 2015). Featuring 64 area poets and spanning nearly 400 pages, it's a mighty watershed of a book.
Even at a glance, it's clear we're not in Kansas anymore. The first offerings are three documentary poems by Mark Nowak, a photo-and-text excerpt from Carolee Schneemann "ABC—We Print Anything—In the Cards," and a 10-word poem by Sparrow; the last, L. S. Asekoff's "Yangshuo in a Drizzle," consists entirely of punctuation. There are poems written sideways, shaped into spirals, spaced across pages or printed in side-by-side columns. "Station Hill's Susan Quasha did a great job with the design—that's a lot of disparate work to fit under two covers," Gorrick says. In a preface, she and Truitt explain that they sought "poets whose work either shows originality of form or makes use of poetic conventions in new ways: old bottle/new wine; new bottle/old wine; and, sometimes, new bottle/new wine."Read more »
In this, his 18th book of poetry, internationally acclaimed Canadian poet Stephen Bett is back to working the sassy, edgy margins of social satire. Divided into four sections, this book opens with humor; turns to soft-edge and then to hard-edge, wicked, hilarious satire of our vapid monoculture; and concludes with a section of poems bringing in the angst of it all.Read more »