by Julia Bouwsma | Contributing Writer
One of the most captivating aspects of the debut poetry collection is how it is the very embodiment of its own journey, a self-contained creation myth in which the poet writes the self into being. At their finest, these books emerge blood-slicked and primal as newly born beasts, glistening with a hard-won power, birthed through the force required to undertake what Robert Penn Warren described as “a hazardous attempt at self-understanding.”
Two fascinating first books that fully embrace this harrowing work—of excavating and rejecting the narratives one inherits as a child without autonomy, of reinventing them in the language one has learned in order to survive, of creating a new mythology of and for the self—are Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin (Milkweed Editions, 2018) and Erin Hoover’s Barnburner (Elixir Press, 2018).
Though the poetic styles and circumstances behind these two collections are markedly different, both books take root as coming-of-age stories and creation myths of the self. Sotelo, a Houston poet who describes herself as “a Mexican American fascinator” in Virgin’s prefatory poem, “Do You Speak Virgin?,” weaves a strong yet surreally gossamer web of lyric, incorporating an absent artist father, retellings of Greek mythology (primarily that of Persephone and of Theseus and Ariadne), and a self-determination that dances the tightrope between the fear of being “a blind goat / with a ribbon in my hair, with screws for eyes” and the knowledge of “how far & wide, / how dark & deep // this frigid female mind can go.” Hoover’s poems, by contrast, are narrative and plain-spoken, her speaker conversational and direct as she explores her fraught relationship to her hometown in rural Pennsylvania, near Three Mile Island, where she grew up as “a child pinned to the evacuation / shadow my parents didn’t // have the means to leave,” as she puts it in “The Evacuation Shadow.” Barnburner is a slow and painful departure, the story of how “I began to leave the place // I lived from the day I was // born,” and its tone is simultaneously furious and wistful, its narrator tied deeply to place and to the reality that “every family corpse was buried / in the same lumpy field, and this will be / my end, too,” yet so intensely frustrated by life there that often “it’s easier / to hit our veins, the beauty / and danger of them . . .”
Indeed, it is frustration, with all of its accompanying loneliness, that acts as the primary source of propulsion in both collections—an urgency and hunger driven by the poets’ desperation to become something more and by the fear that if they don’t succeed in doing so, they will be swallowed whole, consumed by the dizzying and erasing whirl of contemporary life, which seems as omnipresent and oppressive in the “overheated kitchen” of another compulsory barbeque where Sotelo’s speaker finds herself “red and pungent” while “all my acquaintances are coupled up / like hamsters with advanced degrees” as it does in the “windowless, chattering room” of the call center where Hoover’s speaker works in a town noted for “our hometown sinkhole on Front Street / that sucked down parked cars . . .” Thus driven by a mutual instinct for survival, both poets set themselves to the task of rejecting what they must reject and gathering what they must gather in order to claim their own powerful and singular voices as their own.
Sotelo and Hoover fight to untangle the long shadows of childhood’s trauma, each acknowledging the inherent sense of powerlessness and pervasive threat that comes from being young and without autonomy in a world governed by the whims of larger-than-life adults. “I’m not saying I was marked, / I am saying I could have been / and that is stage-worthy trauma,” writes Sotelo in “Trauma with Haberdashery.” And Hoover, in the poem “Epithalamion,” recounts going to bed in the room adjacent to her nephew’s after he’s had a difficult day and wishing she could go to him and
make an apology for how
jagged childhood is,
every moment a completely
new trauma, an earache fashioned
of customized pain. It’s years
later, and I haven’t escaped
this sense of the world . . .
Both poets emphasize the loneliness of the child’s experience as she struggles to navigate the world. “When we are young we invent our logic,” writes Sotelo. And indeed there is the sense in each of these books that survival depends on inventing one’s own logic, on learning how to go it alone. In Hoover’s collection, the speaker’s parents seem both there and not there, appearing primarily as anecdotes, as in “Conversion Party” where she recalls how “how for years, after each / church service, I helped my father / count the collection plate” or as a silent yet stable presence. Virgin, by contrast, depicts the artist father as a powerful and mythic presence, made even more so by his absence—a figure who extends beyond any corporeal form until the child’s struggle to reconcile the father becomes in turn an attempt to reckon with the act of creation itself: “I knew I had to accept the room / to accept my father, that the room was art itself . . . ” In “My Father & de Chirico Asleep on Chairs of Burnt Umber” he is cast as a vanishing alchemist:
That night, I heard my father say he’d made a type of bronze
that could leave melancholy on anyone it touched. Actually,
the walls were ochre as the afterlife, and by morning he
Later the father appears to take shape as Theseus in a sequence of poems that explore the myth from revolving angles: alternating among the wry and wearied Ariadne who is “both hunter & sacrifice,” the unrepentant Theseus who claims, “I’m a master of manners, not morals. I was never born to do this right;” and the bestial Minotaur. These poems are an opportunity for Sotelo to re-write her own creation story and, in “The Minotaur Invents the Circumstances of His Birth,” she does so brilliantly:
I crawled through her human body
to meet her spectators head on
& in the high forceps of the evening
I said hello to my mother and they all fell down
And this, ultimately, is what both poets are after: the chance to self-birth, to step outside of childhood’s shadow, from the narrative one inherits without choice, and to instead write the story again with autonomy. For, as Hoover instructs in the poem “What is the Sisterhood to Me?”: “Don’t say you know yourself / unless you’ve stepped outside of it, / seen the shadow you cast / in your own bronze light.”
Equally as traumatic as the experience of childhood is the wide, flat hand of history—the pervasive brutalities of dogma, of systemic misogyny, and racism that so insidiously saturate one’s sense of connection to place and culture and thus one’s sense of self. “History binds you to your signature,” writes Sotelo. And Hoover echoes her in “Nobody Wanted Such a River,” one of Barnburner’s most powerful poems, examining the history of the Susquehanna River Valley and her own sense of complicity with regard to the landscape she calls home. “If I climb the blue mountain // stand over its sweep of land and say, Not me, / I am lying,” she writes before concluding:
. . . I’ve got nothing to say for this river.
It’s like talking about my own blood,
trying to sense it shivering along
the walls of an artery. Billions
of gallons pass by me daily, and I never
see them. But I am bound to them
as a scalp to a skull. With our history,
second nature now to draw the knife
against our own crowns, and pull.
Here, as in the discussions of the child’s perspective, there is a sense of helplessness and passivity: even though the poem acknowledges its history and complicity, at the end there’s still “nothing to say.” We are “bound” to something invisible yet so powerful that we don’t even realize the mechanism we’re trapped inside; it simply becomes second nature to harm ourselves. Sotelo engages a similar language of passivity when discussing both race and gender in the poem “My English Victorian Dating Troubles”:
Why does the 21st century feel like this?
Like men are talking into
their favorite phonograph
& the phonograph is me
receiving their baritone: you’re so exotic
Here the speaker is stripped of voice, reduced to an object that can only receive a message or play back what it has been ordered to play. We feel the full force of Sotelo’s frustration that the experience of being female in the 21st century remains nothing more than the one-sided exchanges of past generations; or worse, that the modern trappings of “progress”—“I am the angel / whore of kale chips,” she intones ironically later in the same poem—simply obscure the same old power structures. Hoover speaks to a similar experience in “What Kind of Deal Are We Going to Make,” framing it in the language of a choice-less barter transaction: “It’s what a girl’s days / are made of: what body part, this time? / And what will I get for it?” This bleak assessment is accurate, of course, but there is a simmering threat that blisters the veneer of passivity they’ve been trained to adopt. “I will accept your pearls / though I may cut them off with my teeth,” continues Sotelo. And in the poem “Takedown,” Hoover demands the possibility of a different future for her own child:
the daughter I carry now will be there, too. I want
more for her than pussy shots and the vengeant
glow of an LED screen, a choice beyond
predator or prey.
Thus a sense of hope emerges through the poets’ ability to voice—so clearly and so painfully and so beautifully—both their familiarity and their rage.
Through all of this—though the two poets speak so closely they often seem to be in direct conversation with one another—the formal structures of their journeys is quite different. Sotelo maps her collection into seven sections, grouping the poems closely by content in “Taste,” “Revelation,” “Humiliation,” “Pastoral,” “Myth,” “Parable,” and “Rest Cure.” We are reminded of the Biblical significance of the number seven, of early depictions of the Stations of the Cross, of the rites or tests that mark any Classical epic journey. The sections resemble a series of linked caverns, each with its own ghost to be confronted in turn so that the reader and speaker may journey on to the next. This structural choice imbues Virgin with a primal and ancient energy, lending the book a sense of timelessness, a weight of tradition that serves to ground itself in the face of millennial obstacles while showing us, also, how little has changed.
Hoover, too, sets Barnburner into sections: there are three, marked only by Roman numerals. However, her approach is much closer to that of a swirling eddy. Reader and speaker both find themselves caught in a cycle from which they cannot break free, a murky plunge in which “We play in the piss-warm water, / we dive toward the blur of the toy.” Often we seem to move forward—from rural Pennsylvania to Manhattan, for example—only to find in the next poem that we are back where we started, the speaker and her “junkie best friend” on the porch in their parents’ subdivision while “painkillers wrap my skin in angora fur.” Time has a way of collapsing suddenly and without warning. Even in the final poems—as it becomes clear that Hoover has ultimately journeyed into adulthood, that she has left her hometown, moved on from so much of her past—the spell never seems to lift. Until it does: in the last line of the last poem, “The Valkyrie,” where she is held up at gunpoint as she attempts to withdraw cash from an ATM. She starts to do what is expected of her, hand over the money, and then she stops. Instead she grabs her bill back and speaks to him directly of her life, of how “today I turned off the lights / in the supply closet to cry” and of “the water torture of a system / that owns my sword, portions out my rations, / and his.” And when she does this, when she refuses the assumed script and speaks directly, “The wheel stops for us. It finally stops.”
Perhaps more than anything, what propels both of these collections and poets forward is fire. The smoldering fire built of their frustrations as they fight to become full-throated female poets in the millennial age. The fire of self-creation. The hot-burning, phoenix-like heat that casts up from the pages as both poets take an accounting of what must be burned to the ground so that they may emerge anew. Of course Hoover’s title, Barnburner, is the first sign of this theme, and in the front of book an epigraph from the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins explains: “According to an old story, there was once a Dutchman who was so bothered by rats that he burned down the barn to get rid of them. Thus a ‘barn burner’ became one who destroyed all in order to get rid of a nuisance.” But there are so many “nuisances” to name in Hoover’s collection that they overwhelm, and so she puts her own twist on this concept, her goal becoming instead to burn everything for the purpose of saving just one precious thing: the self. And so too in Virgin, where fire is the final act, the crucial element required in order to reach the epic journey’s end—a baptism or survival beacon that brings the self finally face to face with the self. Sotelo raises it up, a single blue flame, placed carefully and succinctly in the final lines of the book’s concluding poem: “Burn it. / This is how I find you.”
Julia Bouwsma is the author of MIDDEN (Fordham University Press, 2018) and Work by Bloodlight (Cider Press Review, 2017). Her work appears in Bellingham Review, Grist Online, Muzzle, Salamander, RHINO, River Styx, and other journals. She lives and works on an off-the-grid farm in the mountains of western Maine where she serves as Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and as Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.