June 2011

Caroline Hagood

poetry

Knocking at the Door: Poems About Approaching the Other edited by Lisa Sisler and Lea C. Deschenes

The poems in Knocking at the Door approach a concept that slips through the fingers of the most adept theory students. As if that weren’t tricky enough, this concept, the other, takes its meaning not so much from what it is, but from what it is not, and therefore its significance is constantly shifting. In their introduction the editors, Lisa Sisler and Lea C. Deschenes, explain this conundrum: “The Other exists only in the negative space around the Self and often says as much or more about its definers than those it attempts to define.” Thus, the other has the irksome habit of holding up a mirror to its confronter. Put that in your poetry pipe and smoke it.

Many of the poems in this collection deal with the trauma of otherness. Dorinda Wegener’s poem “I Write You with the Intention of Amendment” broaches this topic through a language of twisted natural imagery, a bitter blend of poisonous emotional flora. She opens with: “Because you were a quart-berry basked filled with silver bells, / and I was the dried carrion carried by crows.” Wegener later explores the otherness of mother in relation to daughter, a definition by comparison. The speaker is what she is because her mother was what she was. She ends the poem with the following lines:

Matriarch, of the vine which scurries with myths
unseen, we have nursed through hunger’s red music.

I create anew, name from your metronym and now understand;
momma, I write you with the intention of amendment, with thrift
to thrive penances: green as forgiveness, trepid as love.

Since metronym means name acquired from the mother, the speaker is a descendant not only of her mother, but also of the myths or stories of all who have derived from a mother -- of humanity. We are left to wonder whether the “we” refers to the speaker and a sibling or whether it imagines the speaker and the mother as infants, drinking at the breast of “hunger’s red music.”

Sisler and Deschenes have also selected a number of poems that take an empathetic or black-humorous look at individuals whom society has labeled as monsters. As literary tourists in this forbidden territory, we are at once troubled and thrilled. We wonder if it’s acceptable to take a walk on the other side of understanding, to witness the private moments not of the victims, but of the aggressors. In the darkly hilarious “Jason Voorhees’ First Day at In and Out,” Amanda Chiado imagines the inner life of Jason (of Friday the 13th infamy) as he starts flipping at a burger joint. She opens with the attention-grabbing lines, “You can understand Jason’s discontent / On his first day of work. / He was too old for killing / And thrilling the panties off of young hotties  / On the lakeside,” and holds our focus by presenting unsettling puzzles. For instance, when she writes, “In the blur of training videos / And people, whom he thought, / All harbored a legitimate reason / To be murdered— / He was capable enough / Non-communicative”; does she mean that he is capable now because he is “too old for killing?” or capable only as long as he is anaesthetized by the hum of instructional films and people who are not dead, but rather deadly boring? Clearly, any good poem about approaching the other carries with it an array of possibilities.

Perhaps the most outstanding piece in this anthology is Corrina Bain’s “For the Men Who Call the Rape Crisis Hotline and Masturbate.” Bain has the unusual ability to see the “bad guy” in a human light, as the dejected outcast that he often is. Even more stunning is her capacity to envision him sitting alone in a crappy apartment, just as she is. “In your damp breath, I hear the echo. / I know that we are both alone / in messy apartments. I imagine us twins in that.” That she doesn’t separate herself from these men, but rather sees a reflection of herself, leads to an image as compelling as it is repulsive -- the speaker and the man on the phone twinned through a genetics of loneliness. “To me / you sound like the squeak of flesh across a greasy mirror / the whole false, detail-laden story something I could come up with / as I surrendered to the vibrator’s humming petition.” Bain takes an abhorrent character, a man who calls up a rape hotline to say he has been raped while masturbating, and finds common ground with him. “The squeak of flesh” offers its own mysteries. Is it a nails-on-chalkboard-style image of disgust; or is it something more suggestive -- the screech of a naked body rubbing up against a mirror in an autoerotic stupor; or, more likely, a mixture of both that doesn’t display the neat borders between one thing and another?

Refreshingly, like Bain’s piece, when presented with choice a or b, the poems in Knocking at the Door firmly place themselves in hybrid territory. These works illuminate the complexities of difference, or of self and its relationship to non-self, and sometimes its relationship to the other in itself. Is your head spinning yet? Good; that means I’m doing a swell job of initiating you into the dizzying ontological territory that these first-rate poems call home. Prepare to approach the ineffable.

Knocking at the Door: Poems About Approaching the Other edited by Lisa Sisler and Lea C. Deschenes
Birch Bench Press
ISBN: 193590499X
121 Pages