Juliet Escoria’s Witch Hunt begins with an elegantly unsettling statement: “When he kissed / me there was only / one more thing / I wanted and that / was to completely / disappear.” This statement—as with much of the poetry in Escoria’s collection—is so starkly, simply phrased that it’s easy to miss the multitude of conflicted undertones, the dual registers in which she speaks. On one level, it is a confession—I want to completely disappear. On another, it is an evasion of meaning and of meaning-making, as the poem confirms with its final lines: “but what else / is there / to say about / desire… / The answer is / not much.” Escoria’s book begins, strangely, with an almost-ending: by line two of the text, there’s “only / one more thing / I wanted.” We are thus led into the foggy understanding that the rest of this book will be a disappearing act.
This kind of duality—this gray territory between a longing to be kissed and a yearning to “completely disappear”—is where Escoria’s language lives. In Witch Hunt, confession co-mingles with shadowy elision. Desire co-mingles with repulsion. Vanity co-mingles with zit-popping guilt and other bodily excretions. Love co-mingles with persistent interruptions (and explosions) of anxiety. Her writing is honest and emotionally raw, but even this rawness is tinged with a persistent undercurrent of performativity, a sense that Escoria is mindfully stripping away the veils for an audience. In her poem entitled “Is This What You Wanted” she writes, “If you promise to / love me, I will / promise to / never act like / myself for / you.”
With such seemingly unadorned language, Escoria lures us closer toward what we come to understand and accept as her tone. And yet, her language seems to say: “You will not find me in this book. You will not find me in the words that were afforded me.” The search for Escoria in these poems is—in effect—a witch hunt, and Escoria’s voice is as simultaneously seductive, fiendish, and spectral as any witch.
Through Witch Hunt, Escoria outlines the absences that live in every female shape (specifically her own self-construction), questioning what does and does not exist—what is allowed and what is not allowed to exist—in the language of female experience. She plays with the kinds of double-standards used to affect the erasure of women (specifically, female writers who dare to perceive themselves as attractive). In her poem “Win Friends, Influence People,” she slyly exposes our suspicions of her voice: “Also I think I might be too pretty. / So it’s a good thing I am aging / and gaining weight / because I want the people / to find me / relatable.” Three pages later, she summons this very language and turns it on another woman in “Spite Poem”: “Remembering the time / when my professor told me / her publicist took advantage / because she was young, attractive, and female. / Except she wasn’t that young / or attractive,” suggesting she cannot write the first of these poems without accepting her complicity with the language of the latter.
Escoria plays with additional poetic juxtapositions in side-by-side pairings. In one such example, “Life is a Joke Sometimes” scoffs at Escoria’s psychiatrist, who calls her a “poster child for mental health,” then follows up on the next page with a poem entitled “I Call Bullshit” which reads simply: “The thing about drunk driving / is you’re not supposed to / talk about how fun it is.” In another example, “Hanging From the Family Tree,” Escoria’s father begs her to tell him what is wrong when she acts out at a Christmas party: “My answer— / Nothing,” she replies, illuminating that her father’s abusive mother used to behave “just / Like / Me.” The fragmented formal shifting in her follow-up poem, “Help Desk,” performs the kind of broken search from which the text assimilates:
rd to k
s a su
way to tell:
Her mimetic explorations continue with poems wherein spacing, sizing, and other formatting choices perform in conjunction with words and lineation. In “How to Talk to Ghosts,” Escoria beautifully portrays a dynamic arc—loud, large words intermingled with small, soft ones—that recedes into a kind of whispered disappearance—lettering so small that it looks strangely helpless on the white space of the page. The poem begins by introducing its narration as a sort of step-by-step expository on becoming not-quite-there:
1. Turn off the light.
2. Make sure your eyes are
– W I D E
– O P E N
3. Start to cry.
The poem then moves down, across the page, and then, consumes the page:
6. Open your
7. To speak
By the third and final page of the poem, Escoria has visually affected a disappearance:
8. But please remember to say
This fluid narrator speaks with Escoria’s characteristic fogginess, at once embodying and speaking to herself, yet ending with the chillingly distanciated address of herself as “one”: an other, someone who’s no longer there.
As effective as these moments of experimentation are, I feel that Witch Hunt finds its most poignant voice in the narrator’s search through her memory, or rather, the lack of her memory, a lack where she feels she should have a stronger sensory connection to her own experiences. In a series of “Letters to Ex-Lovers,” Escoria addresses her memory of “Michael,” beginning with the concrete and the knowable details, “You brought us home after the bar closed and offered to make us some cocktails. The liquor was new, you said, expensive…” The narrative dissolves into gray gaps of lost time, “I remember falling limp…I woke up later in your bed, the blankets pulled over my body, my clothes folded neatly on the floor, my mouth tasting of vomit.” This inventory of herself and her environment—the bed, the blankets, her presumed nudity, and the taste of vomit—are another “witch hunt,” an attempt to recollect an interaction where, within her memory, there’s only absence. “The only thing you gave me was a question,” writes Escoria, “What happened during that time, in that space? And if you did something bad, and I never knew about it—does the bad thing have no weight? Does it not matter?”