Book Reviews

Jenna Le: “Hard-Ridden Heart”—Mary Meriam’s The Lillian Trilogy

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 4.40.16 PMThe Lillian Trilogy
Mary Meriam
Headmistress Press, 2015

Not only has Mary Meriam’s writing appeared in The New York Times and MS., but she is also shaping the poetry scene as founder-editor of Lavender Review, a magazine “dedicated to poetry and art by, about, and for lesbians.” Her newest collection, The Lillian Trilogy, was published by Headmistress Press in late 2015. While the Trilogy’s three parts (Word Hot, Conjuring My Leafy Muse, and Girlie Calendar) have each been previously published as an individual title, this will be the first time they all appear between the same covers, allowing readers to appreciate their intertextuality.

The title The Lillian Trilogy immediately establishes that this book was compiled with a specific reader in mind: a Lillian whose shadowy presence hovers over the text, much as Lesbia hovers over Catullus’s poems or Cynthia over Propertius’s. While reading, I had an uneasy sense of eavesdropping on a half-heard private conversation. This unease was heightened by the collection’s disinclination to ever deviate from a tightly circumscribed exclamatory lyrical stance. Here are the endings of a sample of poems from the book: “write me, I’m lovesick”; “I sigh and limn”; “it’s you / it’s you I want / come here”; “please, oh please don’t go”.

Of the trilogy’s three parts, Word Hot is the most unified, explicitly grappling with Sappho’s literary legacy. Not only does Meriam channel Sappho’s preference for erotic topics, but she is also proficient at writing in the beats scholars term “sapphic stanzas.” Sapphic stanzas draw their power from reliance on trochees and dactyls. Trochees and dactyls don’t roll off the English-speaking tongue as naturally as iambs, and thus few English-language poets succeed at using sapphic stanzas well. Meriam demonstrates mastery of sapphic stanzas in three poems in Word Hot and eight in the rest of the collection. An example is “Who leaves me rootless,” which not only borrows Sappho’s meter but is also a play-by-play of Sappho’s Fragment 31:

You! all rich now? man at your cozy table,
tete-a-tete, now gets every murmur, whisper,
laugh and sigh that dreamily leaves your lips? How
sweetly your echo

slays my heart, my hard-ridden heart, that beating
harder, horse-whipped, stifles my voice….

Though countless poets have translated Fragment 31, “Who leaves me rootless” stands out due to the immediacy of Meriam’s language, her commitment to reproducing the meter of the Greek original, and her bold choice to insert her name into the final stanza (“Be brave now Mary”), thereby leaving no doubt that this is not just a Sappho poem but one that has been co-opted to address Mary Meriam’s 21st-century concerns.

Conjuring My Leafy Muse, the trilogy’s second part, derives its structure from an autobiographical narrative thread, using fairytale motifs to sketch the speaker’s unhappy memories of her family before narrating her sexual awakening and departure from home into a perilous prejudice-ridden world. The most powerful poems in Conjuring are the most outwardly directed ones: “Arondeus,” an ode to a hero executed for involvement in the Resistance, and “I’ll Call Him Art,” a poem relating the speaker’s fantasy of rescuing a gender-nonconforming friend oppressed by “the bible belt”:

…Art is a man-child boy-girl compromise,
sitting between his farmer maw and paw,
here in the sheriff’s office, Satan’s claw.
Art holds the Word of God, holds back his cries.

I’m helpless, Art, to save you, where we are.
I try to say all this with one quick glance
before I go. Let’s both go, shed the scar
of twisted stares. Let’s cut and run. Let’s dance.
You’ll tell me all about it in the car.
Coyote-howl away the circumstance.

Although the use of the stereotypical dialect words “maw” and “paw” to evoke a rural setting feels a touch heavy-handed, and some may argue this sonnet contains one too many end-stopped lines to completely avoid a slightly singsong feel, the speaker’s guilt about not being able to save her friend is movingly conveyed. Meriam’s decision to give her character the meaning-laden pseudonym “Art” is also wickedly brilliant.

The trilogy’s third part, Girlie Calendar, is framed as a tongue-in-cheek feminist response to calendars that feature a different scantily-clad woman each month. In place of airbrushed female bodies, Meriam sets out to give readers a multilayered depiction of a real woman with brains and heart. As I read Girlie Calendar, there were times I wished Meriam would try on a wider variety of voices: the title of the poem “Wu Tsao’s Seclusion” filled me with hope that I was about to read a poem reviving the 19th-century Chinese priestess, and I was a bit deflated when the poem turned out to be in the voice of a 21st-century American, stocked with 21st-century furniture: “fluorescent lights,” “the supermarket check-out clerk’s / warm ready smile,” etc. Still, there is plenty to enjoy in Girlie Calendar, including “Seashore,” a gorgeous lyrical reminiscence about teenage self-discovery (“but I will turn away from boys and home, / and trade my seashells for the mermaid’s comb”), and the uproarious sonnet “The Romance of Middle Age”:

…One reaches for the pleasures of the mind
and heart to counteract the loss of quicker
knowledge. One feels old urgencies unwind,
although I still pluck chin hairs with a tweezer,
in case I might attract another geezer.

The Lillian Trilogy’s parts are united by one voice, one muse, and a recurring tendency to use received forms to tackle difficult contemporary subjects. Headmistress Press does a valuable service by bringing these three books back into the public eye in a shape that permits them to be better understood and better enjoyed.

Jenna Le is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), which was a Small Press Distribution Bestseller, and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor and Plume Press, 2016). Her poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, and translations appear or are forthcoming in AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, The Best of the Raintown Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.