Laryssa Wirstiuk: The Last Book I Loved (Poetry Edition), The Stranger Manual
In “Miss Peach: The College Years,” a five-section poem from Catie Rosemurgy’s latest collection The Stranger Manual (Graywolf Press, 2010), the young, female speaker confesses:
“No one knows I am the flower, the bee, the wind, the rain, the dirt: all the vectors. /No one knows how well I sleep, how well I lie in bed /not sleeping. I run and sharpen /the bones of my face. The other girls say /they don’t care if their shadows aren’t museum quality. They’re happy /just knowing they’re made of marble. They have no respect /for the chisel I would take to the human race.” The poems in this collection, which both directly and indirectly reference a shape-shifting character named Miss Peach, take shape around these lines.
Rosemurgy’s poems are vividly feminine, but they transcend gender too. The reader follows Miss Peach in strange scenarios that push and prod at her character; we witness her shopping, imagining she is an aging British rock star, explaining promiscuity to a toddler, and considering the human condition.
The Stranger Manual is a character study gone blissfully awry. How many different colors can Rosemurgy dye Miss Peach before she becomes a completely unrecognizable wash? In “Miss Peach Is a Cross Between”, Rosemurgy describes her heroine by juxtaposing seemingly unrelated objects: “Lowered eyes and a suddenly somewhat disconcerting blow job. /A baroque flute flourish and an eerie silence just beyond the cabin wall.” Miss Peach exists both in the objects and the space between them, in the comparison.
This collection evokes the kind of fabulist atmosphere that writers like Vitezslav Nezval in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland aspired to develop. The poems portray girls and girlish women in partly realistic, partly mythical settings. Characters are simultaneously discovering themselves and getting themselves into deep, emotionally-scarring trouble. Each poem drips with something vaguely erotic that can’t exactly be placed.
Rosemurgy is not afraid to approach the edges of many feelings and ideas, taking her poems to the point where the reader might feel slightly uncomfortable and introducing violence into love, sex, and personal identity. In one of my favorite poems, “Love, with Trees and Lightning”, Rosemurgy questions and reconsiders love as a sudden storm. She writes, “I’ve been thinking about what love is for. Not the obvious part where he gathers /until he is as purposeful insider her /as an electrical storm, not when he breaks /into a tree. (We all jolt back, /our picnic ten shades lighter, our hands /clapped over awe that’s too big for our mouths.)”
Throughout the collection, Rosemurgy repeatedly mentions the importance and presence of light. A place called Gold River, bright and sparkling, seems to declare itself as the primary setting. In the poem “Nothing Is Ever Missing in Gold River”, Rosemurgy writes “Everything anyone here ever wanted /turns out to be a quality of light.” And all the characters in her collection, both named and unnamed, seem to be drawn to it.
The Stranger Manual is Rosemurgy’s second collection. Poems in this book have been previously published by literary magazines like American Poetry Review, Barrelhouse, The Iowa Review, and Ploughshares. Originally from Michigan, Rosemurgy lives in Philadelphia and teaches creative writing at The College of New Jersey.
I first discovered her work when I heard her read from The Stranger Manual at a reading sponsored by her publisher, Graywolf Press, during this year’s Conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Denver, CO. Rosemurgy’s reading of playful poems, starring the multi-faceted and dynamic Miss Peach charmed even an audience waiting for main act Tony Hoagland.
This collection is expansive and languid, and the reader could revisit the poems hundreds of times, taking delight in the language, the distinct voice, and the image-play. Rosemurgy’s work is accessible yet challenging, and her poems radiate the same light she believes we all seek.