Review: The Alligator’s Bleached Grin: the Grotesque as Eden in Anna Journey’s Vulgar Remedies

Poetry by Anna Journey, Vulgar Remedies

Louisiana State University Press

Reviewed by Kara Candito

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In “Eden and My Generation,” Larry Levis claims that the poet realizes the spirituality of place through loss and absence. “Eden,” he states, “becomes truly valuable only after a fall, after an exile that changes it, irrecoverably, from what it once was.” According to Levis, the poets of his generation approached the private loneliness of earlier 20th century poetry of place with melancholic suspicion. Replacing this poetry’s image-driven first-person subjectivity with narrators who spoke or meditated in a collective voice, poets from Robert Hass to Laura Jensen began to explore a shared isolation or homelessness via abstract statement and the privileging of metaphors over images.

In her second collection, Vulgar Remedies, Anna Journey’s intimate, often grotesque poetry of place bears the influence of Levis’ generation, while also reimagining the lyric “I” in distinctly contemporary, often dizzily shifting ways that favor sensory evocation over abstraction. In Journey’s plural and macabre landscapes, birds flutter through the speakers’ veins; childhood teeth sit in buckets of blood; a mother’s high school dress “clings like a Jackson night;” a child on a field trip reaches into the stomach of a fistulated cow; and the ghost of Natalie Wood holds a sliced heirloom tomato on her tongue. Sifting through the detritus of recalled and imagined landscapes, the poems in Vulgar Remedies seek violent metamorphosis through sensory, often bodily engagement.

The first poem in the collection, “Why Bioluminescent Shrimp Remind Me of Laura,” begins with a sensory trigger that hurls the adult speaker into the memory of an
adolescent friendship:

There are lights with a wayward sex
appeal, a weirdness that is
shrimp cocktail in my steel sink

shot through with miracle.
But that saturated, angelic skin turned
out to be a pink

bacterial slither, a sickness.

Punctuated by radical enjambments, Journey’s three-beat lined tercets enact the grotesque instant of transformation in which the shrimp’s seemingly angelic skin morphs into bacterial slither. This sudden shift propels the speaker out of linear time and into a reverie that contaminates the present moment with its wayward sex appeal:

There are girls who exist,
like Laura and me, who’d glow—

at fifteen—who’d go up
in flames. We straddled
that concrete median in the donut

shop’s parking lot after school
playing the cigarette game:
a lit Camel dropped

between our forearms, a parallel
sting, that burn that made one of us
jerk away first. Who can stand it

the longest?

Like the malignant beauty of the bioluminescent shrimp in the sink, the speaker and her friend glow even as they act out their own annihilation. The poem zigzags in and out of the erotic, often macabre Eden of early sexual desire, in all of its contradictory wonder, until an urgent question (“Who can stand it//the longest?”) forces the speaker back into the present of the kitchen, where she contemplates her scars as a mirror of her lost friend’s: “those flattened//follicles where no hair grows,/those nine white pox/the size of dimes.” All of this clinical attention bursts the bubble of reverie, causing her idealized memories to collapse into realism:

That night,

as we twisted in her cotton
sheets’ snakework, Laura said
I didn’t know what to do
with a woman’s body.
We spooned on her childhood
bed after I flinched

from her kiss, turned my spine
to her lips, my face
to the postered wall she’d strung

with dried roses the color of a dark
breakfast tea—

While the poem offers imagistic corollary for the speaker’s failure to reciprocate homoerotic desire (“…dried roses the color of a dark/breakfast tea”), it resists retrospective rhetoric and abstraction. Rather, through visceral description (“after I flinched//from her kiss, turned my spine/to her lips”), Journey conjures the brute physicality of this turning away and leaves room for
the reader to interpret its psychological or moral significance.

Severed from the fear-fascination of early sexuality and self-harm, the speaker returns to the present moment, haunted by the absent presence of her past self, which infiltrates the room like the odor of smoke:

I stand at the edge
of my sink with a bowl

of peeled shrimp, where I notice
the sea life still glows after
my lamp sizzles and snaps

the kitchen into blackness. As if a girl
still crouches outside
my window with her wire

cutter and her lucky
skull-lighter. As if I crack the glass an
inch

I could smell the smoke.

As in Journey’s first collection, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, incantatory language—infused with slant rhyme (cutter/lighter), alliteration (window/wire) and assonance (crack/glass)—is a medium for metamorphosis. Yet, the transformations in Vulgar Remedies are harder-won and packed with more substance than virtuosic swagger, as Journey takes on more demanding subjects, such as death, marriage, failed relationships, a mother’s history, and the ghosts of childhood landscapes.

Often, as in “Leaving Texas,” the poems begin by resisting difficult lyric engagement. Here, the speaker addresses a “you” who refuses to mourn the lover she’s leaving via a negated litany of the landscape she’s leaving behind:

So you leave town without the white oak swamp’s
humid incense, without its blessing, without telling

anyone. Sunday. You leave without a last banana milkshake with cinnamon,
without the alligator’s bleached grin in the antique shop—the skull

you’d saved for.

In her haste, the “you” passes up the alligator skull and instead encounters a far more terrifying and organic version of the grotesque on the plane, when the girl next to her comforts an injured pet rat in a mesh bag on her lap: “Lucky’s pierced his lip with his own tooth.” The animal’s suffering propels the “you” back to the memory of the “heat that slept beside [her] each night” and the “follicled nocturnal//songs” of the ex-lover’s string instruments. Overwhelmed with the empathy that is afforded by distance and actualized by her encounter with the grotesque, the “you” seeks solitude in the restroom:

You didn’t think you’d sob once but you can’t watch the rat’s lip

shiver its loose pink eyelet. You excuse yourself,
move through the yellow footlights

to the slim bathroom where the water
in the steel bowl swirls. It’s the bluest you’ve seen in years.

In order to arrive at the consoling chemical blue of the final image, the poem must first be pulled off its own course by the grotesque image, which galvanizes lyric space by functioning as a conduit between past and present and internal and external. In the absence of Romanticism’s panoramic vistas and the melancholic identification of Levis’ generation, Journey’s poetics find their footing in these moments of pinned-down urgency, when fascination is laced with fear. Like Eduardo Corral, whose lyricism straddles the parched, otherworldly landscapes of the U.S.-Mexico border, Journey is best when she acknowledges the instability of the body and the space it occupies by courting the forces that threaten the borders of the self.

The poet’s native South, “where the past/lingers like a Mississippi//vowel drawn out of itself,” is omnipresent in the gothic reservoir of images from which Vulgar Remedies draws. Yet, Journey is neither a regionalist nor an autobiographical poet. Like Corral, she uses place to fuse her own haunted mythologies and maintains an open relationship with autobiography by neither eschewing nor being limited by it. Marrying fact and memory with macabre imagination and erotic disintegration, Journey achieves a poetry of place that honors the complexity of the contemporary consciousness.

Anna Journey is the author of the poetry collections Vulgar Remedies (Louisiana State University Press, 2013) and If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, FIELD, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in At Length, Better, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She’s received fellowships in poetry from Yaddo and the National Endowment for the Arts, and she teaches creative writing in Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing program.

Kara Candito is the author of Taste of Cherry (University of Nebraska Press, 2009), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and Spectator (University of Utah Press, 2014), winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. Her work has been published in such journals and anthologies as Blackbird, AGNI, Prairie Schooner, The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Indiana Review, Best New Poets 2007, and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (University of Akron Press, 2012). A recipient of scholarships and awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Council for Wisconsin Writers, the Vermont Studio Center, the MacDowell Colony, and the Santa Fe Arts Institute, Candito is a creative writing professor at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville. She lives in Madison, WI, where she reads, writes, eats spicy food, drinks mezcal, and dreams of living in the tropics. http://karacandito.com/