Disgusted & Enthralled & In Love: A Review of Louder Birds by Angela Voras-Hills

Disgusted & Enthralled & In Love

A Review of Louder Birds by Angela Voras-Hills

In her poem “Splendor,” Angela Voras-Hills writes, “I am disgusted and enthralled and / in love.” The poem has just described the untangling of a mangled worm, half-eaten by millipedes—the millipedes deprived of their lunch, the worm (semi-rescued) but not long for it. After this hinge line, the next is, “The baby grows too big for my womb.” As the poem continues, the reader meets more bodies: flies, a spider, a fourteen-year-old son, an infant daughter. The poem closes, “The difference / between the moment of being and a moment of being. // When there’s a body and when there is none.” Here, each of these bodies is a notion of home—fragile. Hopeful, requiring tending. Throughout Louder Birds (Pleiades Press), Voras-Hills constructs notions of homes and tears holes in them—thin skins and ribs, wombs, papered layers of rooms & structures, old barns, traceries of farms & crisscrossed land.

The world made in these poems is stitched together by fragile associations—half made, tenuous. The language is incantatory, impressionistic. In “Preserving,” the form of the poem moves stanza by stanza with a word or image occasioning the next. The first, “I can spend a whole winter / in the summer of these lemons / if they’ve covered in enough salt,” leads to the next, where “Trucks are salting the roads / so I can drive . . .” An image of walking leads to an image of falling. Although this form is not as pronounced in other poems, overall the poems are made of these associations. Half-starts & skips. They are juxtapositions—a setting side by side of notions of the poet’s imagination (for better or worse). Sometimes, they offer a snapshot of worst-case scenarios or the kinds of ingrained knowledge that accumulate in small towns or rural areas of what could happen—because it’s happened before.

The opening poem of the collection, “Retrospective,” describes a girl holding a sign that reads “Zucchini / and God.” She’s barefoot and bare shouldered. There’s a gray sky, and a cat, and a corn field, and “the boundaries between home and the road // are insecure.” There are signs, and there are signs—sirens, it seems (and if you don’t know what that means—it’s a warning for a likely tornado or terrible storm). “We’ve all been in the presence of something dark // and have chosen not to seek shelter.” This poem, coming before all the others, is a warning of sorts—and it’s borne out in the following pages: in these poems, things will turn quickly. What seems to be only a roadside scene can quickly become something else, something dangerous. There will be loss, the evidence of something awful come before.

“Chateaubriand” is one of those poems that turns quickly. It begins:

Love me here, a tangle in the wire, complicate
my limbs with your mouth. Like the trail,
we’re a handful of breadcrumbs . . .

In the second stanza, “A girl / from another town was pinned against a fence / with the grill of a pickup while jogging.” I thought I was reading a love poem—but here’s brutality, and it’s not random. It’s personal, a neighbor “the guy behind the wheel, a stranger, lived / on her street.” And the poem addresses the reader then, with a “you,” reminding me of the intimacy of the page, the small space I’m caught in: “one day, you’re eating Chateaubriand, / the next, you can barely pronounce tender.” Those notions of home return, complicated by the imagining (?), remembering (?), of that complicating act—the one that twines with the imperative to love. The body that “keep[s] / our organs safe” like the skin of a grape, “making a home of your darkest, inside spaces.”

The cover of the book, featuring a bird carcass arranged over dried flowers, as well as a number of the poems, invoke dead animals, and the bodies of “the beasts / we’d run over along the way.” In “The Rabbit in the Road,” a blood tide rises over the curb, coating feet and leaving tracks all the way home. In “Home (IV),” a coyote eats her young. In “Unfurling” (a poem that ends with the beginning of labor), there is a poisoned opossum, a blanket of glistening cricket bodies. The displacement of human pain onto the witnessing of other pain—often the close examination of animal pain—a kind of alchemic dissection, as if to engage with these safe bodies, at a distance, with some sort of critical analytical eye—is a recognizable strategy. This displacement makes for powerful poetry: close looking, and capturing that on the page in indelible detail, and then snapping the reader back to the real true thing.

The poem “A Small Hole Filled with Mud” calls to mind the beginning of Angela Carter’s “The Snow Child,” where the wife’s desire for a child is crystallized by a perfect blood-filled hole in the snow. All desire, all wanting, a stylized image of perfection in the contrast of crimson and white. In Voras-Hills’s poem, desire is cast in the rural imagery of salt licks and bait piles—those heady tastes that lure the animal in us. The way salt almost burns the tongue with its pleasure; the way fruit rots in a late-autumn heat, a dense sweet tangibly heavy. Called, the speaker of the poem has arrived, and is “waiting / for the man to see me through / the screen door.” Instead of that image of perfect beauty, there’s the hole filled with mud, the mud “up to my ankles.” In that field, “children who won’t exist are calling / my name.”

In the notions of home Voras-Hills suggests throughout her collection, as well as the ways she troubles their existence, she names a particular kind of landscape and place, best articulated in her poem “Maps of Places Drawn to Scale.” The poem begins with a car accident, a van flipping on an exit ramp. “In a small town, a priest / knows the man’s name.” The poem muses that at the Chinese buffet (there’s often a restaurant called this in small towns), no one’s fortune cookie says “you will suffer [ . . .] / but it’s implied / in the parking lot.” Throughout the collection’s accretion of imagery, memory, and imagining, a skeletal narrative has formed—one of a relationship surviving losses of would-be children, finding comfort in the world they make together even as that world is threatened. One of looking out windows into the distance at neighbors—people and fields and animals, the barn across the way—and trying to find one’s place there. This poem ends with the comfort and suffocating qualities of living in one of those small-scale places: “But in a small town, there’s one / name for each baby born, and eventually / it’s on the lips of everyone in the street.”

C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.

“Sisters Always Love Each Other the Most of Anybody”: A Review of Leslie Pietrzyk’s Silver Girl

A short interlude chapter entitled “Strategies for Survival #3: Silence” occurs almost exactly halfway through Leslie Pietrzyk’s novel Silver Girl (Unnamed Press, 2018). It’s halfway through the numbered pages of the book, and halfway through the unfolding story. Chronologically, it’s closer to the end than the beginning, but chronology fragments in this narrative, as does the protagonist’s voice. In this section, so does point of view. She begins by telling us, “It was cool on campus to talk about the Tylenol killer.” But this girl hides in silence, her own, made of all the things she doesn’t say. The section ends with her at a frat party apart from others: “. . . the single girl—you, me—standing quietly near the keg.” And someone shows up—some he—and she thinks, or pretends, that maybe he’ll rescue her. He asks about the Tylenol killer, who she thinks did it. And she says they’ll never know, that it’s the perfect crime. But he doesn’t believe in perfect crimes.

You smile at him. Sweet boy. Sweet, sweet boy. Then you fuck him anyway. I mean, I did. I fucked them anyway.

The telescoping of this perspective all at once, mid-story, was a sudden wrenching in my gut, a closing of my throat. It revealed what I’d been suspecting throughout the first half of Silver Girl—built on the scaffold of real events of poisoned Tylenol in 1982, and the deaths of seven people in Chicago: this book also speaks to larger truths that the best fiction attempts. The unnamed college girl protagonist is you, me—other girls and women seeking sisters, escaping home, wanting rescue but discovering only a “sweet, sweet boy” with failures of imagination. That’s not the story anyway—it never was.

Silver Girl coverSilver Girl is told in sections: The Middle, The Beginning, The End, and Where Every Story Truly Begins. Through sections that skip between the protagonist’s college years, her late childhood, and immediately after college, the reader meets her family, her college best friend and roommate (and her family), and contrasts those dynamics. Sisters—their bonds and rivalries—are central to the story, both biological sisters and the kinds of sisterhood that develops when people live together, forced into intimacies by shared spaces and confidences. The protagonist sees college in Chicago as an escape from her Iowa town, from her family, but also as a chance to reinvent herself, to be someone else. At home in Iowa, she takes her younger sister Grace to the mall before Christmas, where she has to explain the bookstore isn’t a library and then beg the salesgirl for a book, pretending to be the family named on the paper ornament hung on the charity tree. All that work for a $2.25 paperback, but they needed every coin for the bus home.

In her first conversation with Jess, the woman who will become her best friend, she refers to herself as “the devil’s daughter.” It may be a rare moment of honesty, but Jess is attracted to her bravado—the protagonist is only trying to distract from her cheap trunk suitcase, her threadbare clothes, the imitation pearls that don’t shine when compared to those of the rich girls in the dorm. Jess who wears “winter white,” and gifts her a plane ticket to London, and teaches her to spray perfume on her wrists, and knees, and the inside of one thigh only. Jess whose entire family calls each other “Lovey.” Throughout the novel, the protagonist works to conceal her identity, always wary of being found out. The unkindest thing Jess can do is let her know she knows she’s poor.

The protagonist has other secrets, too—these are revealed in bits and pieces throughout the story. She loves her sister Grace but cannot take care of her—that would mean having to stay. Boys and men are ways to hide, but also maybe ways to escape—she’s trying to figure that out. Her high school friend Janey resents and hates her. There are other family secrets no one is talking about. As her relationship with Jess grows, the protagonist ends up taking on Jess’s secrets also: the ones Jess talks about and the ones she doesn’t. The story is built on secrets, and it’s often unclear how self-aware the characters are—they are unknowable, unreliable, but dearer because of this. I deeply love stories about sisterhood, about girls and women navigating the complexities of their desires for intimacy: failing each other, and needing each other all the more. As the character we inhabit, the protagonist seems so clear-eyed about everyone but herself. I ache for her, want to walk up to her standing alone by that keg and talk to her about the things she thinks—make a list with her (one of her pastimes) about those stupid, sweet boys—and point out all the other girls at the party just like her who are only better at pretending, but no different, not really, than she is.

Ultimately, Silver Girl is a rule-breaking book. The narrator breaks rules and wonders when she’ll be caught. The storytelling breaks rules: we readers try to piece together clues to create a coherent picture of what made the narrator who she is—but in the end, there are shadows that remain, so we guess, and our guesses reveal more about ourselves than what’s explicit in the story. In this column, I try to focus on new writing from the Midwest, so writing about Silver Girl breaks a few of my own rules—although set in the Midwest, Pietrzyk no longer lives here, having left Iowa City, Iowa, years ago for Washington, DC. And the book came out a few years ago, but I just discovered it. I think we need to sing and celebrate the writing that speaks to us, that brings us out of whatever silvered-over thickened skin that’s interfered with our creativities during COVID isolation. For the last few months, I’ve had trouble reading much, and my TBR stack has grown and grown. The fractured narrative of Silver Girl broke through; the sharp eye of the protagonist that berates herself while seeing others so clearly made me want to telescope through time, talk to this fictional woman, tell her she’s seen.

A couple of months ago I was talking to dear friend—a sister—and she was telling me about my astrological sign. We were in our cups a bit, and I turned to her and said, “You’re only telling me the good things . . .” We were side by side on a couch, shoulders touching, and she turned her face toward me and said something so true—it could have been painful, but it wasn’t. It was a moment of recognition. There’s a moment like that when the protagonist and Jess are shopping, and rediscover composition books at Osco. It’s another interlude chapter, “Strategies for Survival #4: Lists.” They talk about list making. Jess says, “Like a diary, but quicker.” There’s recognition:

Her eyes locked on to me, into me, like I had breathed a secret out and she had breathed it right in.

My stomach did that thing it did when I read the perspective switch. Sisterhood, an intimacy of secrets—not only our own. Seen, and so sharply. Clear-eyed about everyone except ourselves.

 

Buy the Book

About the Author

C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.

Portaging icon

Portaging celebrates new writing from the Midwest with a particular focus on experimental and hybrid work from small presses.

BMP Voices Celebrates National Poetry Month 2021!

BMP Voices Celebrates National Poetry Month 2021

Poetry Contest: Poetry as Remembering/Reckoning with 2020 & Past Traumas

Open All April – Fee Free

Amanda Gorman inspired many on January 20th, with her inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb.” With her words, her performance and presence, and her radiance, she invoked past orators and poets, referenced the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and looked toward a collective future: “Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed / a nation that isn’t broken / but simply unfinished.” In his inauguration eve COVID memorial, President Biden said, “To heal, we must remember.”

2020 was a hell of a year. People have experienced traumas collective and personal; we have deepened our intimacies with each other, felt the divides deepen between ourselves and family, and learned new concepts like skin hunger and edging sorrow. For some of us, art has seen us through – for some of us, art has not been enough. Poetry cannot pay the rent or cover the groceries. A beautifully wrought line isn’t the same as holding someone’s hand or finger combing their hair. No words can make up for the systemic and structural negation of humanity or dignity or justice. But maybe, just maybe, opening spaces for language and imagery can let us see each other again – imagine proximity, touch, a held breath, inhabiting each other’s personal space limned with possibility.

At Brain Mill Press’s pop-up magazine for National Poetry Month, we’ll be sharing posts from poets & creatives that speak to the above theme, as well as inviting entries for our fee-free contest organized around the theme of Poetry as Remembering/Reckoning.

Submission Guidelines

Please submit 1-3 poems of any form or style that speak to Remembering/Reckoning as a response to the traumas of 2020. Submissions will be reviewed for suitability by Brain Mill Press staff.

Those poets whose work is selected agree to grant Brain Mill Press the limited right to reproduce your piece on Voices. They retain all other rights to their work.

Poets’ submitted work and profile will be published on bmpvoices.com and promoted on our social media outlets. Your post will contain your headshot and bio, as well as information you may wish to include about recent work and your website and social media links.

Brain Mill Press strongly encourages submissions from people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ writers, First Nations writers, and disabled writers. Please direct inquiries not answered in this call to inquiries@brainmillpress.com.

Prizes

Four times in April, the Brain Mill Press editors will select one or more submitted poems as the editors’ choice pick(s) for the week. Editors’ choice selections may choose any poetry title from the Brain Mill Press catalog for their prize. In early May, the editors will select a winning poem, and the poet will receive the full collection of Brain Mill Press poetry titles for themselves, as well as a second collection to gift to an organization of their choice.