The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis by Joanna Penn Cooper
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2014
$15.95 (paperback) | Amazon
About two minutes into writing this review, before my laborious thoughts have time to appear like snowmelt on the digital page, I have to look up “itinerant,” even though I think I know what it means. I have second thoughts about doing this review, seeing as I am neither itinerant (migrant, displaced, wandering) nor a girl.
“She was more of a girl really, but I tend to use the word ‘woman’ for anyone above the age of 17, mostly due to my distaste for the way the word girl has been misapplied to women for so long,” Cooper writes near the end of one of the untitled prose poems that make up this collection, describing an apparition or reflection whose visitation occurs in the middle of a strenuously polite letter to the narrator’s noisy upstairs neighbors. “But please ask your friend wearing soccer cleats to take them off and to find a new location in which to train miniature llamas to jump through hoops,” she requests just a few sentences later.
The narrator, who may well be Cooper and may just as easily not be, and who is very likely something in between–“that voice in my head that means I might write it down”–witnesses the woman, or girl, when the radiators come on, for the first time of the season, at 3AM, shaking her out of sleep. A moment later, the girl is replaced by a mirror. Transient. Vagabond.
The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis is a very difficult and a very easy book to write about. It’s difficult in the way that I suppose all poetry must be–I don’t read much of it. It’s full of lines that are from and after and in conversation with lines from other poems or, in some cases, Buffalo Springfield lyrics. One poem begins, “The way Nietzsche says we limit the poor squirrel by calling it ‘squirrel.’ (Does Nietzsche say that?),” and I can’t answer, even though I’ve read and enjoyed Nietzsche (his prose, not his politics). I’m frequented by these lapses of memory, of just the sort that the narrator betrays in the above line, or when using the word “congeries” to mean “something between congeries and congress.” I begin to strain against the book, searching for ways to look intelligent while writing about it. This may be why I don’t read poetry–the fear of “not getting it.”
At the same time, this book is easy because Itinerant Girl’s Guide is relatable and frequently funny. It tends to dwell, perhaps unsurprisingly (given the title), in youth–girls, toddlers, infants and teenagers. One poem begins, “I am nine.” A few pages earlier, “When I was a teenager, I knew a thing or two. I stayed in my room being skinny and having bangs, listening to Bauhaus and lifting 3 lb weights.” Still earlier, “It’s true, I could be a lyrical child … Other times, I wasn’t that. I lied about small things, stole candy, pretended to sleepwalk, threw a plate of spaghetti at the side of the house. … I did strange magic at slumber parties, getting everyone half-hypnotized and muted to the spot. Light as a feather, stiff as a board.” Cooper describes “All the sadnesses of childhood. Being pigeon-toed and loved, dirty blond and loved.”
Although I was never a girl, these passages are familiar to me. There she is, the Itinerant Girl, nomad of time, a freak of nature like Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. Drifting through the pages, she guides the reader by the hand, the girlhood or youth-hood passing from figure to figure. “It’s funny to think of your own grandmother as a skinny little kid with dirty feet and braids standing under a tree in Spencer, North Carolina and telling some other little 1930s kids, ‘You may not know this, but I am part Indian. Indeed, my people came from the coast of Virginia, where there are many blue-eyed Indians.’” “To my right a group of teenage boys needs a haircut. They are young. They are puppies.” “I become friends with a girl in a stroller on the subway by making hello beak fingers at her and squinting, even as her best friend remains the used paint stirrer she holds for luck.” “Before I have to put my cat to sleep, I dream that I wheel him outside for some sun. He is a teenage boy with a degenerative disease, and his stomach is hurting, so I rub it for him.”
Motherhood, which I suppose can never be separated from childhood, is a frequent visitor as well. Early on, Cooper references a line from Cornel West: “The love push that got us here.” Mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers are all part of the Itinerant Girl’s coterie, even as they shrink or expand into children themselves, as in this piece:
It is overcast and chilly in our invented city. It is Christmas, and we wear our sad faces over our calm faces. We sit inside ourselves, like we do. You have been a visitor here for twenty years, staying for longer and shorter visits, reading People in the corner on leather furniture, feeling blank and comforted. This is the place where someone makes you a sandwich, cutting up the small amount of onion into very small pieces because you asked, where someone calls out to you in a little voice, “Mini, where’s my white blankie with the white fringe?” and you bring her the white blankie with the white fringe because, after all, she gave you life. You can say, “Hey! You’re the portal through which I entered this world!” And she’ll just look at you, eyes level, do a slight nod and say, “I know.”
As a reader, I don’t feel nomadic in these poems. Maybe it’s the hypnosis taking effect, but with the famous Itinerant Girl as my guide, these poems affect me in the opposite way: they make me feel familiar to myself.