In Ruth Foley’s recent chapbook, Creature Feature, (ELJ Publications) she communes with monsters and peels away personas to reveal humanity’s soft underbelly. These poems, centering around monsters, ghoulish characters, and iconic damsels explore a subversive landscape while Foley also holds a mirror up to our own faces. We swoon with vulnerability and try to ignore the fact that most fears are self-made.
Foley is an excellent tour guide through these tumultuous, emotional poems, getting intimate with evil so that we can choose not to. She asks the “Count” to teach her how to bay at the moon and run on all fours. She has “run and felt the bullets.” The reader experiences Foley’s transgressions through each monster. Nothing to run from, her approach is so approachable: she writes letters to these horror stars of the silver screen.
Each poem is a letter to a different character or actor. Foley relates to these monsters; she gets inside their skin, makes friends with them, walks around their haunted mansion, one room dungeon, or lair. In “Dear Lon Chaney,” Foley’s friendship is revelatory and poignant. She admits:
“I too, grew up among the deaf, I learned to use
my hands for understanding, to change my face
to exaggerate emotions. Sometimes I used glue
or wires. Sometimes I used putty. I moved
from silence into speech. I changed my name
to something shorter. I pretended to curse
my house, pretended to haunt the catacombs…”
“…Still I knew you, recognized the impulse to loose
a chandelier upon a crowd or pull a rival down
below a river…”
Foley writes to “Lon,” not “the monster,” making him a warm blooded, recognizable man to us, a neighbor. He is not an “other,” to be ostracized. Foley relates to what triggers his fear, his impulsivity. Is he not just like us? Trapped in a body filled with short comings, prisoner to confusing emotions? Foley writes to these monsters but it is apparent she is writing to us— the readers, the general populace, or dare I say, “the villagers.”
The villagers and their mob mentality, always play such a huge roll in any horror film or slasher flick. Don’t we all remember some version of “villagers?” the angry mob chasing the monster or beast down an alleyway or up a steep mountain pass? There is even a mob in the children’s movie Beauty and the Beast, rallied out of their minds, out to slay the beast, when viewers quickly realize that unchecked rage and hysterics are the true monster, desperate to take the reins.
Villagers get such a bad rap, running around with their pitch forks, demanding payment in blood. Foley addresses them a few times in this collection, sometimes as a task master, often in a forgiving tone. In the poem “Dear Villagers,” Foley writes:
“You have become an easy target –igniting
the black with torches and bonfires,
out-crying any victims, shouting down
the monsters as if enough commotion could
bring you peace –but stand a moment and
listen now that a cloud as slipped over
the betraying moon: the child is already dead,
the woman lost…”
Foley’s gentle words calm the frenzied mob. She asks them to take a breath, don’t give in to the impulses of hatred and violence. The “breath” is the “interrupter” that we all need before rash, destructive behavior. She also scolds them in her description of their “roach scuttle” home- they are just little bugs that perhaps have power in numbers, but take one away from the mass and one bug can be squashed quite easily.
She instructs and teaches the people more than the monsters themselves, choosing to ally with the creatures. These “villager” poems point out one of the themes of this chapbook: where does a villager (us) end and a monster (also us?) begin?
In forgiving the hive mind of their cowardice, another way that Foley communes with the monsters is identifying with a need to escape this “regular” life. There is a hunger to go beyond, to experience deeper. In “Dear Wolf,” she taps into that desire for adventure, a dissatisfaction with the way things are, wanting what could be.
..” …but I recognize
your hunger, dear Wolf. I can feel your skin
furring to pelt beneath my hand in the moments
before I have to run again. I hear your ruffled
breath quickening against my ear. I am turned
from the man, pulled towards the moon.”
Foley literally moves away from the man, and is lured by the moon herself (as a werewolf is,) but she is also “turned” like a changeling, turned into the beast itself. Foley’s identification with the “other,” the animal, is so natural, the reader might think, well of course we are all wild beasts searching to belong. Her phrases incite an animal’s gospel. We believe her when she writes: “We share a lost language, Come, rest your head against my leg a moment.”
We want to join her, run with the wolves, howl at the moon. She lures the readers into her world of candelabras, vampires, and damsels, but no one is in that much distress. The poem “Dear Count,” possesses a lovely sensuality. Foley illustrates a teacher/ student relationship – a rapport that is a trope- but somewhat dangerous and tempting when the teacher is a powerful hierarchical vampire. I almost want to quote the whole poem but here are a few lines:
“Eventually even you will warm to me.
I have smoothed my bedspread around
my narrow body. I have left my window
open. I already lie hollow, already stay
awake all night…
I have been taught to blunt the stakes.
I have learned that empty is often easier.”
These lines allude to finding companionship through the loneliness of being an outsider. The speaker leaves the windows open, waits. She wants to be emptied. Maybe to be emptied awakens a new way to feel, to be reborn as the “other,” is a last wish. Who hasn’t laid awake in bed, yearning for a some elusive satisfaction? Anything to not feel despair, life’s pain? As Foley writes, such a prophetic, classic line that haunts the reader:
“…if I stumble
out of the sunlight one morning and never
return, no one will check the shadows.”
This line is awash in loneliness.
We all want to disappear at some time. But is disappearing better than losing control? The theme of control- keeping it, losing it- is definitely a reoccurring theme in these love letters to outcasts, the things that never asked to be made in the first place and now struggle to find their place in a scary world that was already scary before their arrival. Looking at the following three poems, “Dear Monster,” “Dear Bride,” and “Dear Ingenue,” Foley describes their desperate, sad situations:
In the first poem of the collection, control is eviscerated. In “Dear Monster,” Foley writes:
“…Oh the child lifted and thrown,
the petals floating on the rippling water,
the blind man unafraid in his cabin, the terrified
bride. None of this was supposed to happen.
The Doctor wanted to create a man, not a monster, but this monster did not ask to live in man’s world and now he will be hunted until his death.
In “Dear Bride,” the isolation is described thus:
“Pallid, alone, you could not
close your eyes—How could you be expected
to believe any creature who called you friend?”
The bride, circling back to a common theme in this group of poems, didn’t ask to be stitched together. Her grave site is mentioned again, as in who will lower her into the earth a second time? How awful, to have to die twice in one lifetime.
Some of my favorite lines are from “Dear Ingenue.”
a man who claims to love you will grant you something
that seems like freedom. So rest while you can,
interchangeable stranger. Don’t trust yourself
to guard a captured beast or keep yourself safe…
Be carried off to church
bells in the daylight. Marry your second choice.”
Even the humans have little control of their lives, their loves. Through all of these poems, the lines are blurred, wonderfully so, on who is the monster, who is captured, who is set free. And how do we set ourselves free anyway? Maybe we want to be captured, hold on to questionable bonds, for a little while anyway. Life is hard, but maybe feeling a little dangerous makes it worth it, if partnered up with the right protector or friend—human or non-human. As Foley puts it so effortlessly in “Dear Karloff,”
“…I have a cigarette
I want you to light for me, your gray hand
around mine. Read to me a while, until I sleep.”