Poetry by Anna Journey, Vulgar Remedies. Louisiana State University Press.
In “Eden and My Generation,” Larry Levis claims that the poet realizes the spirituality of place through loss and absence. “Eden,” he states, “becomes truly valuable only after a fall, after an exile that changes it, irrecoverably, from what it once was.” According to Levis, the poets of his generation approached the private loneliness of earlier 20th century poetry of place with melancholic suspicion. Replacing this poetry’s image-driven first-person subjectivity with narrators who spoke or meditated in a collective voice, poets from Robert Hass to Laura Jensen began to explore a shared isolation or homelessness via abstract statement and the privileging of metaphors over images.
In her second collection, Vulgar Remedies, Anna Journey’s intimate, often grotesque poetry of place bears the influence of Levis’ generation, while also reimagining the lyric “I” in distinctly contemporary, often dizzily shifting ways that favor sensory evocation over abstraction. In Journey’s plural and macabre landscapes, birds flutter through the speakers’ veins; childhood teeth sit in buckets of blood; a mother’s high school dress “clings like a Jackson night;” a child on a field trip reaches into the stomach of a fistulated cow; and the ghost of Natalie Wood holds a sliced heirloom tomato on her tongue. Sifting through the detritus of recalled and imagined landscapes, the poems in Vulgar Remedies seek violent metamorphosis through sensory, often bodily engagement.
The first poem in the collection, “Why Bioluminescent Shrimp Remind Me of Laura,” begins with a sensory trigger that hurls the adult speaker into the memory of an adolescent friendship:
There are lights with a wayward sex appeal, a weirdness that is shrimp cocktail in my steel sink
shot through with miracle. But that saturated, angelic skin turned out to be a pink
bacterial slither, a sickness.
Punctuated by radical enjambments, Journey’s three-beat lined tercets enact the grotesque instant of transformation in which the shrimp’s seemingly angelic skin morphs into bacterial slither. This sudden shift propels the speaker out of linear time and into a reverie that contaminates the present moment with its wayward sex appeal:
There are girls who exist, like Laura and me, who’d glow—
at fifteen—who’d go up in flames. We straddled that concrete median in the donut
shop’s parking lot after school playing the cigarette game: a lit Camel dropped
between our forearms, a parallel sting, that burn that made one of us jerk away first. Who can stand it
Like the malignant beauty of the bioluminescent shrimp in the sink, the speaker and her friend glow even as they act out their own annihilation. The poem zigzags in and out of the erotic, often macabre Eden of early sexual desire, in all of its contradictory wonder, until an urgent question (“Who can stand it//the longest?”) forces the speaker back into the present of the kitchen, where she contemplates her scars as a mirror of her lost friend’s: “those flattened//follicles where no hair grows,/those nine white pox/the size of dimes.” All of this clinical attention bursts the bubble of reverie, causing her idealized memories to collapse into realism:
as we twisted in her cotton sheets’ snakework, Laura said I didn’t know what to do with a woman’s body. We spooned on her childhood bed after I flinched
from her kiss, turned my spine to her lips, my face to the postered wall she’d strung
with dried roses the color of a dark breakfast tea—
While the poem offers imagistic corollary for the speaker’s failure to reciprocate homoerotic desire (“…dried roses the color of a dark/breakfast tea”), it resists retrospective rhetoric and abstraction. Rather, through visceral description (“after I flinched//from her kiss, turned my spine/to her lips”), Journey conjures the brute physicality of this turning away and leaves room for the reader to interpret its psychological or moral significance.
Severed from the fear-fascination of early sexuality and self-harm, the speaker returns to the present moment, haunted by the absent presence of her past self, which infiltrates the room like the odor of smoke:
I stand at the edge of my sink with a bowl
of peeled shrimp, where I notice the sea life still glows after my lamp sizzles and snaps
the kitchen into blackness. As if a girl still crouches outside my window with her wire
cutter and her lucky skull-lighter. As if I crack the glass an inch
I could smell the smoke.
As in Journey’s first collection, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, incantatory language—infused with slant rhyme (cutter/lighter), alliteration (window/wire) and assonance (crack/glass)—is a medium for metamorphosis. Yet, the transformations in Vulgar Remedies are harder-won and packed with more substance than virtuosic swagger, as Journey takes on more demanding subjects, such as death, marriage, failed relationships, a mother’s history, and the ghosts of childhood landscapes.
Often, as in “Leaving Texas,” the poems begin by resisting difficult lyric engagement. Here, the speaker addresses a “you” who refuses to mourn the lover she’s leaving via a negated litany of the landscape she’s leaving behind:
So you leave town without the white oak swamp’s humid incense, without its blessing, without telling
anyone. Sunday. You leave without a last banana milkshake with cinnamon, without the alligator’s bleached grin in the antique shop—the skull
you’d saved for.
In her haste, the “you” passes up the alligator skull and instead encounters a far more terrifying and organic version of the grotesque on the plane, when the girl next to her comforts an injured pet rat in a mesh bag on her lap: “Lucky’s pierced his lip with his own tooth.” The animal’s suffering propels the “you” back to the memory of the “heat that slept beside [her] each night” and the “follicled nocturnal//songs” of the ex-lover’s string instruments. Overwhelmed with the empathy that is afforded by distance and actualized by her encounter with the grotesque, the “you” seeks solitude in the restroom: