Response: The Book of Goodbyes

28Jan14
Image obtained from the Charleston City Paper - click through to read the article.

Image obtained from the Charleston City Paper – click through to read the article.

This collection came across my radar via Poets & Writers, one of my favorite ways to keep up with poetry, small press literature, etc. I have to admit that the cover seduced me, too: not just with the hat–though that’s an obvious why–but also with the pointed look of inquiry in the eyes.  The librarian in me was intrigued by the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award–we keep up with such things, though rarely am I personally asked to recommend a volume of good poetry (it could happen any day now. It really could).

But: the poems themselves. One review I read complimented Weise on not being angry, and I wondered to myself, did the reviewer and I read the same set of poems? Because Weise is hella-angry, but if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might miss it. “The Ugly Law,” for example, is angry as hell about a 19th-century Chicago ordinance that demanded people with disabilities keep off the street or pay a fine. That her anger is channeled, in check, funneled into a poem rather than into a fight, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Exhibit A:

and I can’t possibly climax when I am an improper

person who is not allowed in or on the streets,

The speaker can’t enjoy sexual satisfaction, that’s how angry she is. That, to my mind, is pretty damn angry.

Later in the poem, the speaker tries to deal with her anger intellectually:

One dollar in 1881 is like $20 today. I wanted to compare it

to something like dinner at Ruby Tuesday or a bra

on sale at Victoria’s secret, as if by comparing

the amount to something I have bought, I would buy

the penalty out.  Then the penalty and all its horror

would be gone instead of arrested, kept in mind…

But it doesn’t work so well, as the speaker ends up angrily asking, in the final lines:

…Why are you

sleeping with me anyway? Aren’t you afraid?

“Café Loop” is a genius piece in which the speaker viciously turns the tables on her critics by imagining what they might be saying about her behind her back. If you have spent any time in academic circles you will hiss under your breath while reading this poem, think to yourself, “Oooh, burn.” Because it’s true. It’s one of the most true poems I’ve ever read, quite honestly. The really low blow comes smack dab in the middle of the poem, when after criticizing the poet at length for how she writes disability, the speakers say:

If it really concerns her she should

just write an article or something.

Ouch. Way to demean somebody’s lived experience and her vehicle of expression at the same time. But it’s a thing that happens. The writing world can be very supportive, but it can also be the most critical, backstabby place a person can find herself, especially if her lived experience doesn’t conform with that of her colleagues.

Weise gets in a good dig at academic rhetoric, too:

It’s kind of offensive.  It’s kind of

a commodification of the subaltern

identity. Should we have wine?

Well-played, Weise. Well-played. By showing that she’s perfectly aware of what people might be saying about her, and then turning into a poem, she’s demonstrating that the number of fucks given is, quite frankly, far less than zero.

There’s a lot of other things going on in this collection: feelings about an ex, more disability issues, sex, love, safety, desire, death. I’m not quite sure what to make of section two, “Intermission,” which is gorgeous, and populated by talking birds, but I’m just not seeing the connection to the two more realistic sections it breaks up…unless it is meant to be a portrait of what goes on inside a poet’s brain. I’ll have to read it again. I want to read it again. Hell, I’m going to buy it. I don’t know Weise, and she doesn’t know me. but our interior landscapes intersect in some important ways, and she knows some things about what it’s like to be a person like me. That’s worth my hard-earned coin, for damn sure.

The collection closes with “Elegy for Zahra Baker,” a poem about a ten-year-old girl with multiple disabilities who goes missing, and is later found dead. The poem takes place within the space of time before Baker’s body is found, when there is still hope, and the speaker is thinking about her own experiences with disability, while hoping for Baker to be found alive. The closing stanza is a plea, not just to Baker, but to all women struggling to negotiate their lived experiences:

Zahra: you’ll get better at passing. It’s a pain in the ass, I know. You’ll learn, I promise. Just make it out of the woods.

Perfect.

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