The cover of Veronica Golos’s fourth collection, Girl, a palm-sized gelatin silver print by Japanese artist Yamamoto Masao, launches us directly into Golos’s themes. A butterfly rests on a child’s hand. A symbol of evanescence, butterflies live but a brief time, mere weeks to months. Similarly, girls cannot escape their quick trajectory into womanhood. For many, this comes far sooner than it should, due to early trauma or sexual assault. Both the girl and the butterfly carry their vulnerability and beauty into a world undisposed to shelter them: “too / soon the jumbling chaos of this world falls over her over all the children of the park.”
Throughout Girl, Golos explores the fraught legacy which exists between mothers and daughters. Mothers can’t protect their daughters from new iterations of the trauma they themselves endured, nor can they spare them its fallout. In “Motherspeak, Because,” the speaker says: “Because I had you, had you, had you / I was sixteen / I gave you away / away / Because then I took you—back—mute at five.” A sixteen-year-old forced to give up her child is victimized twice over—first by her impregnator and then by the machinery that separates her from her child. We assume from her muteness that the child has been harmed.
When the power of speech returns, the voice reveals its trauma. In “Doublespeak,” the speaker declares, “Your voice, livid, stung with ache—I see you.” We cannot be certain whether this is the daughter speaking to the mother or the mother to the daughter. A later line is less ambiguous: “She speaks—your mother—crazed to alabaster.” In “Daughterspeak: A Haunting,” the speaker dreams or remembers a similar origin story: “I see her when young, her rags above her waist, against a wall, gnawing / chunks of bread while the soldier pounds her closer and closer to stone. // I stand by while she and her child drink mud.” These women bear their damage twice over—in their own bodies and in birthing equally vulnerable child-bodies, daughter-bodies.
Bodies become something to escape from or leave behind. “There was little I didn’t do,” confesses the speaker of “Rougedwoman: Prophecy”: “the short / needle, a long affair, an intimate drunk.” The girl’s mother lies tangled in her sheets, withdrawn and unreachable. As a child, the speaker would leave her sad body in bed and fly. “It was a little joy I was allowed.” But always, alas, she would have to return: “And / the body would welcome me, yes, / but this me would be a bit sad, / to be inside flesh again, / and know what I knew.”
This mother/daughter trauma is so vast that it has to be mythological. The epigraph for the first section of the book is the prophecy that the Delphic oracle gave to the Lacedaemonians when they were planning a war against Athens: Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit [Bidden or not bidden the god is present]. Its first poem, “Rougedwoman: Prophecy,” evokes Vestal Virgins and temple prostitutes, women given a limited range of choices, to renounce sexuality in exchange for the gift of prophecy (the Vestals) or to engage in ritual sexuality in exchange for food, shelter, and a social role (the Hetairai). We imagine older women ambivalently training younger women for such “sacred” roles. Golos inserts the evil Queen mother in Snow White into the collection, as well as Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen. Sappho, too, makes an appearance. Some of these foremothers are jealous of the as-yet innocent girl, others are pitying, and still others malicious.
Some do their best to protect the girl. In the poem “Cup,” Golos writes of visits to a grandmother’s house, where the speaker would drink from “her one teacup,” decorated with periwinkles. The speaker remembers: “As I drink, I fall into a lake so thick with petals no one would ever / drown, or be pushed from a helicopter, or be hurt.” We think of Pinochet’s Chile, where those deemed enemies of the state were pushed, still living, from helicopters into the sea, and of the Dominican Republic, where the Mirabal sisters were tortured and killed after fighting a losing battle against Trujillo. For the length of the tea-drinking, at least, these brutes are kept at bay.
Another mother who did her best to advocate for her stolen child was Demeter. Golos evokes Demeter and Persephone in the poem “Eleusis—For the Mothers of Children Taken,” with its sections titled “Descent, Search, and Ascent.” Echoes of Persephone appear again in the quote from Louise Glück which begins the poem’s second section: “There are places like this everywhere, / places you enter as a young girl, / from which you never return.” In Golos’s poem “Horses,” Persephone again surfaces as we read of the girl’s “new sadness plum-colored … her death-knowledge ripening / that womb grief.” And again: “[T]he girl’s purpling sorrow slowly / grew fruit inside her.” Like a pomegranate within her, each seed represents a pain, a loss, or a disappointment, each one fruiting.
No surprise then that men appear in these poems as figures of violence and threat. Interestingly, Golos denies them the detailed observation she bestows upon the women we meet. Only one speaks, and even he is only permitted to quote Sappho. They disappear into ellipses, into the holes rent by their assaults, as in each of these lines, coming from five separate poems throughout the collection:
“he, the big-he, came every Thursday to demand […]”
“Because men / they / always / found / me”
“he / held her down trembling”
“When at nine, she in the bath, her step Father, you know”
“Me. Thirteen. And the man, Greek, speaks…”
The reader feels that just the sparest glimpses of these men are allowed and only in defense of the (self-)destructive mothers. If these women have fallen into addiction and madness, Golos suggests, they have good reason.
Finally, tribute must be paid to Golos’s gorgeous language. Girl bursts with sonic play: “thistle, whistling,” “blunt with dust,” “urging rest between battle,” “threshed from … flesh,” “asters lavender.” Golos writes mostly in free verse, poems that move across the page not just in couplets and blocks, but in arcs, arrows, and waves. One poem, “The Snow Queen: M(O)ther Writes to Her Maker from Behind the Page,” consists of couplets where the first line is a backwards mirror image of the line that follows, embodying the title. Also included are backward ghazals and rhyming tercets.
The collection ends with the prose poem, “Turtle,” set apart in its own section, titled “Prequel.” A five-year-old girl stares down into an apartment garbage shaft. There, amidst unwanted things, something undefinable glitters. The girl leans towards it, but her mother pulls her back by her hair. Is this act evil or loving? Her mother then gives her a startling gift that echoes this duality—a turtle—a living creature to love, but one that can withdraw into its armored vault (like the mother herself, like the daughter). After a brief, glorious time, the beloved turtle disappears with no explanation. We assume the mother has tired of it and tossed it away. Thus, this collection begins and ends with a mother who is a fickle goddess, a giver and taker of gifts, a giver and taker of lives, one whose daughter watches and learns.
Of course, the flip side of trauma is enhanced sensitivity. The flip side of the curse of being set apart by the gods is the gift they leave, “the gift of a quick epiphany.” As the Delphic Oracle said: “Bidden or not bidden, the god is present.” The mute little girl grows up to become the poet:
Alchemy anguish the cargo me.