by Nancy Mitchell
Mad Hat Press, 2018.
Michell’s latest collection, The Out of Body Shop, is taut, haunted and emotionally demanding; her poems are archeological exercises: unearthing the past and spreading it in the sun to “burn/off the mold, the stink.” Speakers revisit houses, contemplate past tragedies and encounter ghosts―one, memorably, a late mother smoking “Virginia/ Slims or Ginny Skinnies as she called them.” In “Ghost Smoke,” the visitation is benign, a pragmatic and “scrupulously fair” mother remembered without much angst; in others, the ghosts are crueler and the memories significantly more painful. As the book progresses, Mitchell’s harrowing idioms begin to feel like questions: can “the final, often irreparable split” of psychic damage be repaired? Must childhood trauma shadow us forever? And is this all somehow fated, pre-ordained? In this collection, family troubles (violence, poverty, secrets, addiction) are a reoccurring blight, some pest that overwinters, resurfacing to devastate lives and generations. In “Prudence,” the voice takes steps to mitigate these seemingly inevitable disasters:
Cow milk pailed
in a copper bucket
turns blue if stirred
with a silver spoon.
To meet a drunkard
before dawn will undo
the curse of a ghost
as does dirt twice
spit on by a liar and split
with an idle rust-
These gestures ―rendered with such marvelous assonance―are rituals, ancestral recipes of people so accustomed to danger that “to come upon ivy/creeping a path/turns fire in the heart/to ash in the mouth.” Ashes and burning figure prominently in this collection. In “Ashes,” the voice contemplates bits “of bone that would not/ burn,” and in the very next poem “How Reckoned,” a “mother’s/ashes” are “still smoldering.” If I know my tropes, fire and its aftermath typically represent a final ending or transformation, but here they signify what still lingers, whether it’s the mother’s ghost “smoking as was her wont,” or the child who momentarily mistakes a profusion of fireflies for her “dad’s/ butane torch him all liquored/up, finally making good/on his threat to burn/every single weed/into the goddam dirt” (“What Were Fireflies”). This poem’s compelling ending is typical of Mitchell, who has a genuine gift for reported speech and all its dynamic possibilities. Consider the ending to “Driving Past Our Married House:”
You got such a kick out of telling our friends
again and again what the cable guy said, brushing
cobwebs from his hair after he’d belly-crawled
the attic floor to lay the line for our new TV:
damned if this is not the tightest house I’ve ever seen
How proud you were, how you’d beam.
This poem comes near the end of the book, and after the violence witnessed so far ―domestic and otherwise―this “tight” construction naturally occurs to us as a nightmare space: claustrophobic and cobwebbed, the redoubtably proud husband a jailer. In fact, the very next poem “Prayers Reversed” describes an escape:
I gather the car keys, my purse,
passports, our will and good
silver. Shush the children,
lure them with Peeps
from the TV’s gleam before
we slip out the back door
careful of the hinge’s creak.
A genuinely chilling image, this: children who seem hypnotized and must be “lured.” Oddly, my first thought was of other poems in the book that reference the death of chickens by fox or skunk, (similarly frozen victims?)—more significantly, though, it demonstrates Mitchell’s talent for describing trauma―psychic, physical, ancestral―and how the body responds. In the eponymous “Out of the Body Shop,” the speaker falls in a parking lot
my fallen body
passersby rally like ants
around a scattered picnic
I float in a blizzard of static
trailing a cut
no idea how long
Mitchell’s deft use of white space here captures uncannily the loss of time and self that accompany serious injury. The space and pacing are so effective, in fact, I’d like to see her use them more, although she has other means of depicting the detachment of shock. In “Catatonic Snow White,” where the trauma is fear of deportation, Mitchell effectively employs a clipped style, mostly devoid of pronouns, to describe the patient “Unable/to get out of bed. A turning/toward the wall and pounding/ fists. Can’t eat, swallowing/ impossible.”
The same clinical tone appears in “Intake Invoice,” which details the recollection of a childhood sexual assault. The “Time Out elapsed,” is “Unknown,” while perception and body separate: ‘Typical/symptoms: lightness/of being, sense of shrinking. //Exit Point: black hole/in his eye. God/Hole she called it.”
Certainly, there are poems that break from themes of misfortune, the delightful “Praise,” for instance: “You be my Sunday/morning hot…hand-scratch made/pancake…I be your coffee cup, Starbucked” or the wonderfully strange “While in the Body,” in which a fetus speaks “I spooned the heart/and bided my time.” Even so, anxiety and a sense of danger never really abate, and the intensity of this collection never lets up―but then, I’ve never found myself admiring a book for its restraint, have you?
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