by Laura Madeline Wiseman
Dancing Girl Press, 2014
(Full Disclosure: I recently collaborated with Wiseman, illustrating to her poetry for Intimates and Fools, Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014).
Laura Madeline Wiseman’s writing never fails to surprise with her range of voice, story and method—from the mischievously charming of an imaginary cock in Sprung to the seriously significant reimagining of Bluebeard in Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience, to the playful examination of the complicated pairing of the female form and cultural notions of beauty in Intimates and Fools, (Full Exposure: I created art for this book) to the saga based on her real-life great-great-great-grandmother, nineteenth century lecturer, suffragist and poet Matilda Fletcher in Queen of the Platform to the extra terrestrial saga of Stranger Still—perhaps Wiseman’s only pattern is revelation and challenging perception.
She seems to echo this sentiment in Spindrift, a darkly enchanting chapbook reconsidering mermaids—their being, place, physicality, human’s perception of them, and vice-versa—through literature, movies, environment, and beyond. Spindrift presents their beautiful flaws, and how perhaps they aren’t so dissimilar from us.
“First Story” begins appropriately, calling to mermaids’ established home, water, and their familiar, “mythical and mercurial” aspect: “…They change with the stories that change us, twining like dancers with schools of silver fish as they come in with the rising tide.” (5)
The use of “stories that change us” suggests the impact of literature —as we get to know them thru books or movies, we change, gaining perspective.
“Against Myth” changes gears—naming and hinting at various depictions of mermaids. Wiseman even includes a nod to her previous writings with “Not Martians, Egyptian mummies or imaginary cocks,” admitting her own role in creating characters, albeit nontraditionally. In the end:
“They arrived through a rabbit hole. They drank us. They ate us. They fit through our doors.” (6)
The mermaid’s imply here that the culturally accepted, fictional versions of themselves took over the authentic version of themselves, which is actually unlike anything anyone has conceived, whatever that is, we’re about to see…
In the down-to-earth “Song of Their Selves” we see mermaids with hair—mustaches, hairy armpits and navels, unibrows, and beards—perhaps playing with that old feminist stereotype of not shaving. Positive/negative connotations aside, Wiseman presents them with pride and charm:
“On warm days, they sit on icebergs and stroke the heft of their beards. As they stroke, they sing.” (8)
The playfulness turns to despair in “View from the Harbor” as the mermaids “examine the city from the vantage of full tide spills and swells:”
“…The mermaids worry over women in red dresses who tinker on pianos set with music without notes and the men who read blank newspapers. Note how the roads refuse the grid. Note how every path doubles back to water.” (14)
Is this suggesting the mermaids’ situation is hopeless, or of the humans’? Is their (or our) existence meaningless? Regardless, if mermaids were real, they would ponder the same existential dilemma as we do, instead of the naïve loveliness as is always given in story. Moreover, perhaps the perfection of the mermaids lie in their worldly philosophical intellect, unlike their usual simple, beautiful character—too—it can be mentioned, much opposed to the usual characterization of women characters in general.
“Rock Fight” is a stand-out piece, and great follow-up, as it displays the mermaids reveling in imperfection.
“…The mermaids carry stones—blue, specked, misshapen, glass. They despise perfection, symmetrical, whole. They scour beaches. They dig beneath sunken bellies of flotilla, fleet, iceboat, yacht. They take all they want. They seek out damage. They want mine. They want yours.”
These mermaids are confident, unafraid, courageous, unapologetically acknowledging the true beauty of the scar and supposed flaws, for they seek what is real, not unreal, culturally-set ideal.
In “Or as Fairy Tale” the choice of shoes given to the newly human mermaids humorously yet also bitterly speak to the perhaps few characterizations or “types” of women given by society to become:
“…the cobbler held a foot in his hand before placing it on the slick tray that measured. He said, I have roller skates, a red pair of shoes, and twelve sets of slippers. Which do you want?” (20)
What a selection!; are women carefree, sexy, destined to stay in with the supposed comfort of the slippers?
Here the story turns darker, as demise is explored through an oil spill in “Death” and a somber look-back in “Letter to the Dead:”
“…They didn’t hear you calling. They didn’t see how the moon caught your eyes. They were pompous, selfish, full of disease. They were afraid. They didn’t want to go down into your darkness. They’re only human and you, you’re not.” (24)
Too, “Spindrift” expands upon the swiftness and simplemindedness that is humanity, reporting on rubble imagery from a flood tide:
“…Like gulls, they face the wind ready to meet whatever blows in, what could be ________ or maybe ________. It’s hard to tell by the photo. This could be the wreckage from anywhere.” (25)
With her words she reminds us how small we as humans are in the earth, universe, in time. The closing piece, “In the Des Moines Public Library,” though, comes full circle, as mermaids “sit snug, spine pressed to spine, in the stacks where Waterhouse productions hold their slithering limbs on rock and crag, chain and tide. They swim through paragraphs. They deep-sea dive through chapters. They lull in the precise lines of poems. They know their tail is written in water, already gone.” (28)
Wiseman’s writing provokes: in this dynamic world, and with only short lives, will we ever escape what is prescribed for us? Is it possible for mermaids to be redefined in literature, and moreover, is it possible for women to burst out of their molds? In many of Wiseman’s works, we are left with hope, or response to her queries and re-examinations, but in Spindrift, we are left in the water, fending for ourselves, truth revealed, imperfections and the uphill laying open for our view. Perhaps to allow us, like the mermaids’ stones, to collect them pridefully. As the mermaids, and the shoes, we can be all of them—sexy, playful, comfortable—and more. Will we get noticed, appreciated, will literature such as Wiseman’s work make real societal changes in perspective? We don’t know—maybe not. But we’ll keep up the search, and Wiseman will keep on writing, reexamining, and bringing us provocative, moving stories.