Catechesis, a postpastoral by Lindsay Lusby
University of Utah Press, August 2019
(winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry)
64 pages / Amazon
“Now: make it new again.”
(from “I can’t lie to you about your chances,
but you have my sympathies”)
Collage as form is inherently iconoclastic, intentionally interactive, and literally shapeshifting. Familiar seams are severed and made to cleave along new edges, the fitting never exact, but always stimulating—a kaleidoscope of free associations. Collage, then, is a brilliant choice by Lusby to render her haunting Catechesis, where even the index reads like a collage poem. Three main sources braid into the collection and combine with the author’s love of art, letterpress printing, fairytales, horror movies, wildflower names, and typewriters: Grimms’ “The Maiden without Hands,” and the movies “Silence of the Lambs” (J. Demme 1991) and “Alien” (R. Scott, 1979). The material unthreads and weaves its themes into an intricate web of imagery, progression not continuous, rather a whole that shimmers anew with each turn.
The juxtaposition of a fairytale and two horror dramas, one of which is sci-fi, makes for a great threesome for the catechist/narrator to spin her postpastoral from. All three genres could be called practice runs in fear and terror, mythic time and archetypes removing them from any self’s specifics and immediate present—an opportunity to identify from a safe distance. Fairytales, most of all three, perpetuate in their telling an established order. So-called Evil continues relegated to the Devil and is always vanquished. Nobody dwells on responsibility, let alone guilt. Practice ends with a big sigh of relief. Not so in a horror setting, where the true horror, of course, is Evil being “gray-zoned” and on the loose. Still, horror stories, too, reaffirm, to a degree, variously ingrained structures, hence the catechist/narrator. And with mythic time comprising all time in Catechesis and conveyed in the speaker’s insinuating voice, apocalyptic time becomes pervasive and much more unsettling. The collection’s poetry filters and reflects back on its source material in myriad ways. But, it exists as much in its own right, quite fascinatingly so, that is, it creates its own mythic and apocalyptic time and tales.
Catechesis is divided into five parts: three acts of “Woman of the Apocalypse” (based on the fairytale) interspersed with the poet’s variations on the movies: “Lamb of Law” and “The Dragon.” Poems in the latter sections alternate with poem collages sourced from disparate reference books to make for uncanny, pseudo-scientific figures for the horror insinuated by the poetry next to them, as well as to mirror the shapeshifting “girl with no hands.” The poem collages are the visual prompts to freely associate while making statements on naming and defining: they include erasures and word lists, and they parody acts of defining as, for example the respective plates for “Boneset” and “Lady’s Thumb”. By extension, the alienation produced raises questions about the origins of names and about who does the naming.
“Woman of the Apocalypse” starts and concludes the collection, which dives right into the fairytale’s brutality and matter-of-factness with its first lines (from “Girl with no Hands”):
Her own father mistook her for an apple tree,
full-trunked and red-cheeked.
So he hacked at limbs,
a bedlam of branches and hands.
The catechist/narrator turns “Woman of the Apocalypse” (back?) into the “Girl with no Hands” and later, the “Girl with Cloven Feet” and the “Girl who Gave Birth to an Apple,” maintaining the mythic time characteristic of fairytales. Equally, harnessing the fairytale’s archetypal binaries of Purity/Evil, Female/Male, the poems do address trauma by proxy, but, unlike the fairytale, they deconstruct pre-ordained paradigms: e.g. no one is saved by the girl’s innocence, including the girl—Evil isn’t put back in its place. In Grimms’ tale, the girl is limited to personifying purity, and hence without agency, while being subjected to enormous trials to prove her legitimacy. Similarly, the girl within “Woman of the Apocalypse” is (was?) made to morph from apple tree to deer, ditch weed, to roadkill—powerful imagery for how she remains defined by and at the mercy of others’ needs, as well as for how trauma haunts and deforms. The frequent use of anaphora in these poems mirrors the simultaneity of all that she is to be and made to be just to earn recognition, survival even (as in “Alien” as well for that matter). To subsist comes at a high price.
The “Girl with Cloven Feet” has a “hunger for knowings.” The hunger
starts in her fingers,
plucks every thou-shalt-not,
holds each petal on her tongue
like a sacrament:
He loves me.
He loves me not.
The language used brings into sharp relief how dominance, represented here by the biblical admonition and popular lore, conspires to self-perpetuate. The girl’s only independent act is to stretch out her fingers in lonely desire, fulfillment, if at all, coming at the whim of someone else’s, subject to volatility, and exposed to abuse. Her desire, sacred in its own right, a delicate “petal on her tongue,” remains unmet. Holy Communion is given a twist. Simultaneously, cloven feet suggest the devil—the girl at once deer and (scape)goat, the old virgin/whore paradigm. The speaker in “Tremble” foregrounds this ambivalence and adds an ominous warning to her “hunter” (note that ‘tremble’ can be read as command or admonition). The poem ends:
and she moves like scattershot,
constellates over marsh:
a smile studded as a belt,
the flint-strike of tooth on light.
of this drowning ground,
The sections titled “Lamb of Law” and “The Dragon” expand on the archetypal tug of war by taking it to the realm of the two iconic movies, further distorting the fairytale’s clear-cut binaries.
Why do you think he removes their skins, Agent Starling?
Are you a bird
in a woman-suit, Clarice?
Some pretty little blood sparrow—
such bright palpitation:
readthread. readthread. readthread.
you are the same shade
You are plucked up.
Ready for love
to wear you like a girl-pelt
This speaker’s voice is full of innuendo trying to take hold of the interlocutor’s mind. It casts a malevolent spell: the trochees and repetitions “readthread. redthread. readthread // Peeled back, / you are the same shade” read like a typical hexing rhyme. Here too, love is not love so much as desire, at once fascinating and a menacing power play. Echoing the girl with cloven feet, desire can still become an abused vulnerability. The bird recalls the lines “The girl with no hands / prefers to imagine herself / a bird” (“Forestry (part one)”), her image for escape. Has the girl escaped, only to find herself confronted with the machinations of a Lecter like figure?
As “Lamb of Law” precedes and contrasts with the “Girl with Cloven Feet” so does “The Dragon” foreshadow “Girl who Gave Birth to an Apple,” introducing themes of motherhood and birth in dystopic caricature true to the collection’s drive to loosen corseted gender dynamics and conceptions. The poet’s choice to use a spaceship’s main computer called Mother to riff on motherhood is especially intriguing. Is the disembodied speaker of “Wait a minute, there’s movement. It seems to have life—organic life,” who wryly asks “You want to know what it is / to play Mother?” and laconically ends “it was never worth this,” a humanoid machine then? Quite a tangent to send the reader on.
In “We’ve got this far—we must go on. We have to go on” the bird makes another appearance, still trapped and doomed, as a mutating addressee, again leaving room for all kinds of interpretations. This poem too can be read as spell or narration. It ends on the last verse of ring-a-rosie, sounding an eerie echo:
You come back as bird
in the air shafts,
strike yourself against
the walls like a match
your Mother is counting
down the seconds until
She is no one’s Mother.
Mother singing her last birdprayer:
ashes ashes we all fall down.
The poem “Roadkill” closes the circle of the ingenious cross-references and parallelisms that make the collection so gratifying to explore. It reads in its entirety (underline my own):
The girl who gave birth to an apple
is a bird-broken window,
is a seam snagged open:
cold air balloons her belly
with the idea of fullness—
the idea of bursting
at a happy matchstrike.
This is also one of the shorter poems in a collection in which none run over a page and all are set in alternatingly indented stanzas of varying lengths—most often couplets—underpinning the intimate back-and-forth they depict between a clear-eyed speaker and a mutable, malleable interlocutor—the reader at once voyeur and “pupil” of a postpastoral catechist who is playful the way a cat is playful with a mouse. And yet, her apocalyptic voice refuses to forego lyricism, fearlessly affirming vulnerability:
she will mold herself
around that touch.
Burgi Zenhaeusern‘s chapbook Behind Normalcy, winner of the 2019 Harriss Poetry Prize, is forthcoming from CityLit. Her writing appears in several online and print journals. Originally from Switzerland, she lives in Chevy Chase, MD. Find more at burgizenhaeusern.com