Apocryphal by Lisa Marie Basile

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It’s tempting to say that all nuanced writing, invested in the complexities and contradictions of human experience, is apocryphal. By this I don’t mean “of dubious authenticity,” the way apocryphal texts are sometimes described, but rather, in my own words, “of multi-valent truths and subjunctive moods”—the spaces we have been known to open in our lives and in our literature that exceed transcriptive, verifiable realities: this is what happened, and then this, and then this. Here’s a public record, or a photograph, or a time-stamped video to prove it.

To write apocryphally, from my vantage, is to write poetically in some sense: to inhabit the interstitial realm that poetry occupies, bracketed by a genre called fiction (that which is imagined) and a genre called nonfiction (that which actually occurred). Might we call a poem apocryphal because it resists categorization as either fiction or nonfiction, because it occupies both realms simultaneously and refuses to be parsed between them? I think so. I hope so. But would we assert that a poem is of “dubious authenticity,” that it is “untrue” or “less true” because it is not a work of journalism? I think not. I hope not. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we seek out poetic spaces precisely because of their apocryphal nature, defined also as “secret” and “non-canonical.” The apocryphal suggests that which is not the master narrative of a certain people, place, or time, but one of its “hidden,” perhaps intentionally buried stories, proffered by voices not widely heard or embraced in the mainstream. Poetry and apocrypha share in common a history of myth, allegory, speculation, and fantasy—truths that resonate more deeply in metaphorical and moral registers than literal and factual ones.

I came to Lisa Marie Basile’s Apocryphal eager to travel off the beaten paths—of genre, of narrative, of self-disclosure and self-discovery. I was never once disappointed. The first page serves as untitled prologue and also, it seems, as ars apocrypha. Notice how the multi-valence of the word itself is conjured here and how its meanings accumulate:

in this story/we exist perpetual between the sea & shores
he became a believer, but not in himself
I live between abasement/__ & love
the place buried as childhood is buried
I am not like everyone else’s child.

And then, the ultimate credo of the apocryphal:

it might be___ the truth, or not. ___that is up to you.

Caesuras strike me as quite apocryphal, too.

What follows this one-page invocation is a book-length poem, one of my favorite instantiations of poetry. This genre has wings to stretch, after all. It is not always a tight scroll slipped inside a bottle. It is not always confineable to small clusters of stanzas and neatly enjambed lines. Poetry can be gangly and expansive, a wild garden that outgrows lineation, that spills over the fences of established form. So it is with Basile’s book.

The title of the poem, nested within a larger text called APOCRYPHAL, is genesis. Is there an exodus? No. This is a book of incipience, cusps, and verging. It is a book about learning to begin (again) and not a book about learning to escape. As I read, I discover that Basile not only means to invoke the general meanings of apocryphal. She means to render an alternative version—hence, the lowercase—to the first book of the Bible. There was Genesis, and now there is genesis. This is a secret, non-canonical account. This is the story, in my reading, as told by an intelligent, insatiable, unevictable Eve: “I open/ my mouth so a whole man could get in […] I wear the both of us.”

This Eve addresses her mute and shadowy Adam: “I had not wished for it/ to go this way, my love.” This is the Eve who casts her proleptic line deep into a future darkness:

I would learn to devour everything,
_____mollusk & man,
become obsessively pregnant with you,
I mean: ________become those women staring,
& abort you.

According to the Bible, for her share of the transgression that brought about the Fall, Eve is sentenced to a life of sorrow and great suffering in childbirth. She is also subject to the authority of her husband. This Eve speaks to that experience, again and again, with furious candor:

_____what life feels like now:
a fucked hole, a registry of sadness

What can our mythical First Ancestor teach us? What does her embodied voice in Basile’s collection convey? She recalls “a distinct deliberate hunger,” “an unmovable desire to be filled & poured.” Of her body derived from a stranger’s rib, she solicits the reader’s point of view: “Tell me, do you see it? / she hides it and hides inside it: that open space inside her/ filled of lucifera, lolita, lucretia.” These are other versions of herself, the other apocryphal women she has been. Master narratives again: “I’m bent/ in the shape of a woman, but I am not a woman.// you decide what I am.”

Later, this same voice will confide in us: “because in me there is an inauthenticity hoping/ for spectator [to be seen is to be real] & the speckled light/ of dusk is slicing the excess of me.” She is apocryphal, in the first sense of the word—“of dubious authenticity”—but it is not her story that is false. It is her secondary personhood, the diminished value attached to her life as a woman (read here, in the Edenic sense: derivative of man) that renders even her pre-lapsarian life apocryphal.

Our speaker incants: “this is/ what you do with pain. you stand naked with the sun behind/ you. every silhouette says death. every breast says death. every time I show my breasts I die.” In this remaking of the myth, Adam is called Javi. “Javi says it is/ not in our nudity, but in the covering, that we find sex. When/ we are done I wear the curtains and the light likes me like a child.” And later: “the tired trope/ of girls gone dark/ from lack of brightness.”

Of the speaker and the author, the same might be said (and so is written): “you can imagine anything/ about her, this woman. _____she is you and she is me.” There is a world of unsaid things in that caesura and in all the caesuras of this book. Basile uses the caesura more artfully and surprisingly than any writer I have read in recent times. Her caesuras are sometimes fig leaves on naked bodies. Other times, they are deep pockets of silence—the unsayable and the unsaid—into which all the clothed, now with something to hide, tuck away that which threatens to expose them.

I hasten to add this speaker is not confessional. She is something else. Other confessional speakers “strip down” for their readers, “bare all.” But this speaker is naked to begin with. She becomes oracular. She writes her way toward this New Eve’s revelation: “the truth is you should not waste your time on being good.” This woman does not regret the fruit. This woman does not regret her part in a certain de-creation, though she may regret at times her own creation: “the whole body is a lie.” She might as well have said, the whole body is apocryphal—Eve’s body, especially. Not as simple as a lie, but a contested space and an appropriated symbol. Our Eve can share her secret: “I enjoyed the fruit.// it has taught me to consume.” She can begin to read her own life through different lenses: “the mythology of me is the same as any woman.” She can speak as Apocrypha about Apocrypha: “my god says/ run like childhood/ out to sand dunes/ out to the fiat/ out to the whole scene/ and reconstruct the story.” Of course “it hurts to speak but it must be done.” How else do we become “the version of ourselves/ we’d dreamed-of”?

Early in the book, this Eve languishes in a new post-lapsarian world. She asks, rhetorically perhaps, “how will this ever unhaunt me?” But of course, the apocryphal never does. It goes right on haunting. This is also the way of the finest literature and the fiercest love: a particle always lodges in the viscera, infiltrates, integrates, remains. It cannot be cut out or undone. I end with the passage from Basile’s fine, fierce, and haunting book Apocryphal that has lodged deepest in me:

there is always
a garden. _____there is always a garden.
there is always a woman. _____there is always a woman.
there is always shame. _____there is always punishment.

watch what you say,
I have knives in the brush.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →