Beautiful Horrible

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if-birds-gather“I like to see the most aggressive of [horror movies]—Dawn of the Dead, for instance—as lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath….It was Lennon and McCartney who said that all you need is love, and I would agree with that. As long as you keep the gators fed.” —Stephen King

Anna Journey’s debut collection of poetry, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, does an excellent job of feeding—in order to reconcile—these gators. In fact, the book’s first poem is titled “Adorable Siren, Do You Love the Damned?” These poems borrow from the genres of horror, ghost story and darker fables and fairy tales. Journey’s fable-poems, such as “Shapeshifter Introduces Her Village to the Moon” recollect short story writer Kelly Link. However, the volume as a whole performs more tasks than the creation of new mythologies.

The book is obsessive and purposeful. Its project, while stylistically at times mentoring itself to Sylvia Plath, is something wholly contemporary, slick and filmic. It’s also rooted in what seems to be a deeply personal story, even if the speaker admits “Some of What I Write Are Lies” (“Elegy: After Filling Out Egg-Donation Forms”). However, most writers understand that lies can sometimes cut closer to the truth than the facts as they stand.

The driving purpose of the volume is a reconciliation with the darker parts of human life and fantasy, which for Journey hover throughout gardens, houses, churches, sexuality, and family. Personal losses riddle the poems. “Rose Is Dead and Crashes the Party,” refers to a miscarried sister who appears throughout the volume. The speaker’s ancestors appear, ghost-like, in many poems, including, “My Great-Grandparents Return to the World as Closed Magnolia Buds.” Her poetic ancestors appear as well, chiefly Keats. There’s evidence of life after death in this book, in the way these ancestors haunt the livings’ faces, poems, and imaginings. The speaker, or singer/siren, keeps the dead vital by continuing conversation with them and through the consistent presence of their bodies and stories in these poems. Breathing continual life into the dead may be one way Journey helps her readers bear grief and guilt associated with the loss of loved ones.

Poet Scot Cairns, in his memoir, Short Trip to the Edge, writes “[Poetry] is not a means by which we transmit ideas or narrative events we think we already understand, but a way we might discover more sustaining versions of them.” Journey’s work seems to be in tune with this poetic theory. She writes, “I want to believe that, after he died, the cat didn’t / gnaw off his face.” Later in the poem, Journey continues, “I need to know / he kept his face that day” (“Elegy: I Pass by the Erotic Bakery”). This “need to know” drives the poems, seems to drive the writing of them as well, so there’s an urgency and almost frantic velocity to them, as if the writing of these lines will soothe the hauntedness of other, less palatable images that hang with the speaker.

Another poem engaging in this kind of self-soothing is “Since the Rabbit Was Singing.” It starts, “I didn’t hear my mother fly through the attic floor, / where she snapped/her vertebrae” and goes on to make the house the culpable agent in the event. Journey writes, “What does this house think it’s doing, / still bodiced // in water damage and poor boards?” The speaker prepares for the chance to be present at the event again, with the closing lines, “Mother, this time / I swear I’ll look up.” The poems become opportunity to correct responses to loss and disaster, to right one’s past by re-writing it.

In this regard, the poems act as a kind of amends-making, a process of rigorous self-appraisal. In even the smallest details of the past, the speaker attempts to bring to light where she could’ve done more. “Lucifer’s Panties at Lowe’s Garden Center” describes an interaction the speaker had with a customer when she was working in a garden shop. “I pointed to the label, direct sun, but couldn’t say, // Bring the blooms indoors before the frost.” This level of honest self-examination is impressive and generous.

This generosity is also given to other characters who appear in the poems. It’s highlighted in the poem, “He has given his face to the waters of the lake,” which recollects a string of family members giving actions to other people, actions that one doesn’t usually think of as gifts: “My mother / has given her knuckles to the boy on the school bus– / the groper who’s hand was a salamander”; “My aunt has given her fugitive / son his escape to a Mexican schoolhouse”; “He has given his girl’s lover / a blown-off leg beside the bar.” In this, the poet changes the reader’s perception of the world, helping us to see every action received as something to treasure, like it’s been gifted us.

These poems, as well, are gifts—often gifts to the dead. The dead are the gators that need feeding in this speaker’s world. In “Carnival Afterlife,” Journey asserts that feeding the dead requires continual effort. She writes, “Because the corpse opens his mouth for change even now, / decades after the embalmment.” The poem ends with a teenage girl dipping under the carnival tent “to stuff a fistful of late summer myrtle / down the throat of the hanged man.” The poem’s final line reads, “and he hung there, swaying from her touch.” Journey’s poems put their hands on the dead and bring them to life, making more beautiful the horror we associate with the dead and other spirits.

anna-journeyShe often uses flowers or plants for this task.
I tell her I won’t go
to the Italian place

with the full copper bar because it smells
like blood since the surgery. No, she says. The smell

is wild mint in a white-peach orchard…” (“The Gypsy’s Late Arrival”)

This poem again revises the truth to make it more sustainable. Other poems prettify evil with the presence of flowers:

My demon
stamps inside like a starved goat—black

hoof on my tongue,
its bitter eggplant. My lips
won’t hold long

their cloven shapes
or his song: Blue thistles

bloomed in cities. (“Night with Eros in the Story of Leather (2)”)

This use of flowers recalls the Grimm fairy tale, “Jorinda and Joringel,” the tale of a young man who’s lover has been turned to a bird by a witch. He dreams of a blood-red flower with a pearl inside it that will free his beloved. Joringel finds this flower in his waking life and frees Jorinda and 7000 other maidens who have been captured and kept as birds in cages in the witches castle. The beauty of flowers—or wild mint and white peaches—in Journey’s work, has the effect of freeing the speaker from dark obsessions.

However, flowers are complicated in the Journey’s work; they come with their own dark tales: “The devil pries open my red hibiscus like skirts” (“Adorable Siren, Do You Love the Damned?”); “The flower with my own name, Anna Elizabeth, was too damn pink and ruffled. I switched / its label, wrote Lucifer’s Panties, stuck its white plastic/flag back.” (“Lucifer’s Panties at Lowe’s Garden Center”); “Your sister and you decide the biggest / flower in the world is enough // to hold buckets of dead birds” (“Corpse Flowers and Grackles”); “Flowers / as snipers in the arrangement” (“Snipers in the Arrangement”). This poet, these poems, refuse simple symbols, entwine and conflate dark and light, and in the process turn reader’s assumptions about good and evil on their heads.

Though the poems in If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting root themselves in traditions of superstition, these superstitions are re-understood and reversible. Journey writes, “The black cat crossing your path. To change your luck, / run backward.” (“Snipers in the Arrangement”). In digging up graves and rooting through the past, Anna Journey’s rich lines assert the writing of poetry as the vehicle that can change one’s luck, one’s history and future.

Read Danse Macabre, Mississippi: My Great-Grandmother Fires a BB Gun” by Anna Journey in Rumpus Original Poems.

Writer and performer Dawn Trook teaches in the Program in Writing at the University of California, Merced and plays bass guitar in the band B to B-4. Her poems have been seen in Poetry Flash, Colorado Review, Brooklyn Review, Dust Up, and other journals and anthologies. More from this author →