The Force That Drives All Flesh

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Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls is a case study for how to observe, recall and (possibly) create from whole cloth with clarity that never becomes brittle.

Erika Meitner’s sharp, insightful third collection, though overly adorned with “panties,” does right by many other reverberating words that get vital, original treatment thanks to her subtle alertness and subtle ear. She is so penetratingly aware of what it means to be young and female that her poems have a broader reach than the title suggests. Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls is a case study for how to observe, recall and (possibly) create from whole cloth with clarity that never becomes brittle.

“Sex Ed” is surely the piece everyone who has experienced it would wish to write, with only minor variations :

The back seat of this car glows blue
in the classroom darkness. The filmstrip
is chattering steadily through its loops, teeth
holding it to the light. We’re slumped
in our seats, legs stretched in the aisles—
unwieldy bursting bundles of spandex,
watermelon lip gloss, hard-ons,
torn jeans, acne scars, unlaced sneakers.

In a few more lines with equally perfect breaks (note placement of “teeth,” “slumped,” “spandex,” “hard-ons” and all the rest),

The flim bleeps suddenly, freezes
In mid-convince—the signal
for classroom discussion , all of us sitting
uncomfortably silent, no one wanting
to be the prude or the slut, the scapegoat.

This straightforwardness is magically deceptive, so smooth it looks easier to accomplish than it is. It makes me consider sharing it with a teenager I know who is, like most girls her age, all too aware of her body. I want her to read it because she deserves to learn that people beyond her circle of loved ones and friends REALLY GET IT, even if film strips (appropriately used here) will seem as ancient to her as rotary dial phones. Meitner is wonderfully apropos as she goes on to ask damningly:

Who decided to leave the most intricate union
of flesh and emotion to health class, to 30 kids
playing Frisbee with sample diaphragms, batting condoms

You know she knows that the answer is probably someone who was force-fed sex-ed with the same choking doses of awkwardness, thrill, irritation and excruciating cluelessness. You know she knows that the course creators and curriculum deciders were also awkward wrecks long ago. By the poem’s beautiful last lines, there is more wisdom, with well woven yearning :

roving lips and tangled limbs, for baseball metaphors
and base desires, for holding each other close
in darkness. The force that drives all flesh,
exhausts, exalts, raises us up, ecstatic.

From schoolroom clumsiness to universal longing, this six-pager is a kind of incantatory introduction for what’s ahead. Everything else is either just as gripping , or very close .

Not surprisingly, Meitner is concerned with shaping time and stopping it, and “ The Contact Notes,” here in its entirety, is the work of a photographer who knows which tools and chemicals best illustrate source:

I tried to reassure the ladies
that it is not an uncommon experience :
symptoms of fatigue and listlessness,
skin sensitivity, a burning feeling

on the face and eyes, fluid discharge.
Though I’m sure it was a sincere fabrication,
excessive brightness is always a hoax.
We need evidence, meticulous theoretical analysis.

No source but the sun could have made
such shadows.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman comes to mind, with her classic novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, and with that association, the moment to pause and say how much I want Meitner to be gratefully indebted to feminist forebears. Glimmers of that debt abound. “Morningside Spiritual” is just one example, held together, and away from implicit victimhood, by just enough action in the voice of the speaker :

I.

Sublimation is the most mysterious process, used to purify substances;
to reach it one must pass through a dark wilderness.

II. The dragging of summer, feet walked out in exhaustion
between Central Park and Broadway, down Cathedral Parkway;
outskirts of the loitering park at dark, scattered crack pipes, cracked-out
catcalls
asking for trouble.

The poem contains six short stanzas, all equally superb, with the example above and the example below (VI) making me think Richard Price would love this as much as I do :

I’ve been all over this city
but I think everything good must be in another state—
gaseous, solid, liquid, light,

                                    crippled angels

                  should con-

                  vey me

                                    right

home.

Titling poems is, to steal from Norman Mailer (who would have made a great double-bill with
Meitner), a “spooky art.” A title can overpower everything that follows it, shade it with off-kilter suggestions, or burden it with unnecessary weight. Meitner avoids these pitfalls, even, and very importantly, with the titles that separate each section of the book. domestic spasm has a propulsive tension applicable to everything in it, and contains a classic in “Treatise on Dwelling:”

There must be a place where everyone
is slippery and lovely and not
up all night. There must be a place
that’s less work that this,
where something compels you
other than comfort and highways
with just two lanes which
won’t snap back or fold
in on themselves like a fitted sheet,
lumped and faded, warm from the dryer.
Everything in the Laundromat
is hot in summer—your head
inside the machine for a moment
to reach the one sock trapped
in back, ear-drum echo.
(Like the echo of your voice
might take you back into the right
dark cave if only you could breathe
more quietly?) The echo started
on a bench by the bay, when he
arranged his head in your lap.
In the photo you look worried, not brave.
A brave transistor radio balanced on his chest.
Your fingers rested on his face.
The face of the radio played static.
The static radio played big band.
The band-radio channeled the sound
of cable cars, the shiver of metal wires,
mechanical ocean, anticipation, waves
of Rube Goldberg or Golgi apparatus—
the apparatus of every bad motel from here
to the next place called home. Home.
is the one who spend more time
trying to find you than anyone else.
Rest there. Choose him.

This is cinematic. and sage.

About a third of the way into “Treatise on Travel” we’re told of a four-year-old whose parents dress her like a baby, not wanting to pay full airfare for her . But the girl will have none of it and announces her name and starts screaming for her own meal. This could be fiction but it’s also a portrait of the truism that kids have killer radar when it comes to nailing parents who deserve it. The last lines loop back to the very first, with loaded images of jellyfish and their capabilities. They’re riveting, serious and moral without moralizing. Just like the whole poem. Just like the whole book.

Read “WalMart Supercenter,” a Rumpus Original Poem by Erika Meitner.


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →