I love weird, creepy dolls. I have long been drawn to their rolling-back eyes, threadbare locks, and chipped cheeks. I can think of little I’d love more than to discover a trove of Frozen Charlottes while digging in my backyard. Or somebody’s baby doll embroidered with a wasp’s nest in the tree branches above. That viral video of the hermit crab who found a doll head and scuttled its new head-body toward the surf? I think it was posted ten times on my page. People know this about me and, I guess, accept it if not celebrate it. I understand. It’s not for everyone. And, I don’t really understand why it’s for me—but it is. I feel a shiver of delight and something like recognition when I encounter one of these exceptional creatures. They come from some darkling part of me I hold dear. They come from the me who is a Weird Girl.
My new book of poetry, Mostly Human, comes from this part of me, too. The poems follow a character called Round Baby, who is “mostly human, most of the time,” through her childhood and adolescence in the 1970s and 1980s. Baby, as she is referred to in the poems, is definitely a Weird Girl who, on the surface, functions as if she’s normal. Baby is a teenager through much of the book and encounters her own changing body with confusion, revulsion, and desire. I mean, me too, Baby. I remember feeling like my skin just did not fit. But Baby has a little something extra built in. She pushes her transformation past the real into the fabulist space. Into, in some cases, the grotesque. She sits in the bathtub, looking at her reflection in the spigot, and turns into a spider. She spins in the gym in sweater tights and becomes a pencil. When she’s angry enough, she turns into the Blob and eats up her classmates, teachers, parents, and whoever else gets in her way.
In her essay, “Using Fabulist Elements to Write the Difficult,” poet Stacey Balkun writes “For me as a writer and reader, Fabulism is strongest when it exists in small doses. I like the real world slightly augmented: an antler, a pair of wings, a mermaid tail.” Here, then are some other things you can read if, like me, you agree. Just a pinch of magic. A perfect wee bit of weird.
The Stranger Manual by Catie Rosemurgy
This book had a big influence on me as I wrote Mostly Human. Rosemurgy’s collection also focuses on a weird girl, Miss Peach, who wanders around the town of Gold River, becoming a “tube top and a biohazard mask. / Goldilocks and the tongue of a bear,” a lobbed grenade, presenting at the orthopedic clinic with “an alternating overabundance / and absence and of bones.”
The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic
Not weird so much as eerie, I’ve always loved Simic’s askance look at the beautiful and ravaged world. His wink-wink humor shoved right up against bombs and graves and poverty, in lines like: “We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap” and “The dead man steps down from the scaffold. He holds his bloody head under his arm.”
Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulism edited by Stacey Balkun and Catherine Moore
I saw the call for this anthology while I was writing Round Baby into being. It was to be “a survey of contemporary women poets working with the incorporation of real and surreal elements into domestic realms.” Huh. I think that’s what I’m doing, I thought. I didn’t know this genre had a name and, even better, had many more women practitioners such as Jennifer Givhan, Akua Lezli Hope, Martha Silano, and others.
Antebellum Dream Book by Elizabeth Alexander
I used to get teased in graduate school for writing poems about my dreams, which have always been vivid and visceral and extremely entertaining to anyone I force into hearing them. Nobody laughed at Elizabeth Alexander, though, and why would they? This collection, published in 2001, brings together poems about motherhood, family, race, and popular culture in a way that balances inquiry, observation, terror, confusion, and joy. This last emotion is the one that has stayed with me all of these years because of how the Alexander unabashedly embraces the associative logic of dreams in the poem “Your Ex-Girlfriend: “The ex-girlfriend has showered and cut her stringy hair. / Her arms are full of joy: The Joy of Cooking, Joy of Sex, / Joy dishwashing Liquid, Joy perfume by Jean Patou / Joy is so important, your ex-girlfriend say, and smiles. / You’ve got to keep your life absolutely full of it.”
Landscape with Headless Mama by Jennifer Givhan
A fellow contributor in Fiolet & Wing, Jennifer Givhan is a master at the dark fairytale. Here is a book that reinvents the mother-daughter relationship familiar to fables by setting it in the Southwestern deserts, among Aztec goddess and South American painters. There is a poem in which the children of the town disappear only to be replaced by eggs, and yes! I am totally willing to believe this. And then there’s a poem that celebrates one of the collection’s central characters, “A Crown for Headless Mama in Her 14×14 Music Box”—I just want to crawl inside that title, pull it over me like a seashell, and head for the shore.
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado is rightly celebrated for stories that remake folktales with a feminist bent. The green ribbon around her character’s neck is familiar to we who lead the ghost story retellings in the blanket fort at the sleepover, flashlights up under our chins, but Machado’s ribbon holds something even more intimate and unsettling in place.
Why We Never Talk about Sugar by Aubrey Hirsch
Hirsch, whose graphic essays on motherhood, illness, and gender inequality are among the best we currently have, includes in the title story of this debut short story collection a strange world in which sex has been divorced from love. Women get pregnant with objects they truly desire: buttons, watches, antique silver spoons. The very best kind of weird.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Sheila’s newest collection of poetry, Mostly Human, out now from BrickHouse Books! – Ed.
Mostly Human by Sheila Squillante
Mostly Human’s central character, Round Baby—plump infant, tumescent teen—rules these poems. Round Baby is the Gen-X offspring of the Eraserhead baby and Love’s Baby Soft, herald of the darkly absurd late twentieth century. These poems are as crafted as a spacecraft and brave enough to hip-check the charming abyss.