Book review by Michele Battiste
PO Box 3665
Tallahassee, FL 32315
2011, 80 pp., $17.00
An Undeserved Vigilance
The opposite of nostalgia is not memory,
but if I evoke a memory of suffering,
it is not general
Nor is memory generic in Erika Meitner’s Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls. Yet Meitner’s strength is the same as the carnival fortune-teller’s: outing (or conjuring) a remembered experience that resonates even as we recognize that the details are alien. As she says in her poem “Elegy that Returns with Souvenirs” from which the above quote is taken, “Everything is like something else, / but not exactly.” It is in that awkward and painful and dangerous gap between how things are portrayed and how we expect them to be portrayed that Meitner strands her readers, leaving us to realize how much is lost.
In “Petaluminous,” for example, Meitner offers this depiction of teenage primping:
insert fingers into puckers like the older girls who stood at restroom mirrors drawing indexes (slow) through their mouths to remove all excess traces of evidence, of glossy nothing-but-trouble O-hole pinkness.
Meitner takes an image that is part of many women’s memories—learning how to blot lip gloss by watching older girls wipe the excess away on a finger pulled through puckered lips—and turns it sinister. She does this not by sexualizing the scene—the sexuality of the move is what made it so alluring to the naive observers—but by excising the innocence and leaving room for maliciousness. Using words like “insert” and “evidence,” Meitner conjures a clinical observer, one who possibly judges the adolescent girls’ burgeoning sexuality as “nothing-but-trouble.” By introducing this perspective, Meitner introduces the possibility of things going dreadfully wrong.
The playfulness of the title is our first warning of how dark this book is. For months, I misread “vigilant” as “vigilante” every time I saw the title in print. Even after I received a copy, I didn’t realize the word was “vigilant” until I finished the book and examined the cover closely. The misreading is encouraged as a play on a recent popular trend in children’s guide books that are targeted toward either boys (The Dangerous Book for Boys, The Boys’ Book of Survival (How to Survive Anything, Anywhere)) or girls (The Daring Book for Girls, The Girls’ Book of Glamour (Guide to Being a Goddess). In this vein, instructions for vigilante girls make sense and can even be perceived as empowering. But instructions for vigilant girls—“makeshift” instructions no less—are something else entirely. Unlike vigilante girls, vigilant girls are not dangerous; they are endangered. They must defend themselves through hyper-awareness and extreme carefulness, and there are no codified—and herefore acknowledged—methods of protection. Vigilant girls must, as Meitner suggests, piece together their strategies as they go.
The looming threat that Meitner addresses is abduction, a theme that she explores on many levels from the danger of literal kidnappings to imagined alien abductions and their psychological implications: violations against the self and the resulting anxieties. She begins the collection with “Instructions for Vigilant Girls,” a poem referencing Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping but written to Smart’s younger sister Mary Katherine who witnessed the abduction while pretending to sleep. The instructions are intentionally contradictory, encouraging both bravery and self-preservation simultaneously: “Speak on behalf // of the soon-to-be-missing” and “Bring your gum eraser and be invisible / as a grackle to the well-trained watcher.” In this initial poem, Meitner addresses what is at stake throughout the book: agency. In this case, it is the agency of young girls and how it is constricted. To assert agency is potentially dangerous. After getting out of bed to tell her parents, Mary Katherine almost ran into Elizabeth’s kidnapper and ran back to bed to hide. She could have saved her sister, or she could have gotten herself killed or kidnapped as well.
Yet Meitner doesn’t leave it at this: agency for adolescent girls is complicated, potentially liberating and threatening at the same time. Instead, she intertwines her poems about abduction with poems celebrating adolescent sexuality, even when that sexuality is awkward or painful. Meitner reminds us in her poem “Sex Ed” that sex feels good and sexuality is empowering, especially for teenagers:
we don’t need to ask forgiveness for exploring fingers, roving lips and tangled limbs, for baseball metaphors and base desires, for holding each other close in darkness. The force that drives all flesh exhausts, exalts, raises us up ecstatic.
By juxtaposing poems about adolescent sex with abduction poems, Meitner creates an uncomfortable awareness of the perception that what is most threatening to young girls is not the abductor, but her own desire and desirability. It isn’t agency, then, that is complicated. Rather, it the expectations of the vigilant girl and exactly why she should be vigilant. Meitner answers this question succinctly when she ends the poem “Elegy for Certain Missing Persons & Secret Parts of Queens with Trains”: “There was someone else’s finger / held to my lips.” The decision to be silent is not the speaker’s.
These poems can often feel destabilizing, mainly because of the disconnect between the disturbing subject matter and the delivery. Some of these poems are breathtaking in their formal beauty, in Meitner’s ability to create harrowing scenes with beautiful language, and in the sometimes lulling rhythms. Meitner masterfully employs this disconnect to enhance a necessary creepiness. Take, for example, the last stanza of the closing poem “Blow,” in which the speaker tells of her lover’s attention to another:
mine field mine gold mine heart mine told me that you sat with her and said you have my heart now come to bed.
The soothing sing-song cadence is reminiscent of lullabies, but the formal digression in the third line signals something gone awry; the “mine” and the “you” become divided, and the “you” speaks to a beloved different than the speaker and beckons that beloved to bed. The speaker, however, learns of this intimate moment from another, the “mine,” who, up until the volta, we assume is the “you” she ends up addressing. The second-hand nature of the revelation and the turn in the address takes what is initially anticipated to be a pleasant fairytale and inverts it. The tale becomes sinister, and both the speaker and the “her” are in need of the vigilance that the book insists on.
If Meitner stumbles, it is when she occasionally uses vague abstractions as encapsulations of ideas that perhaps don’t translate as well as her vivid imagery. “Elegy that Returns with Souvenirs,” the poem discussed at the beginning of this essay, maintains a thin, jaw-tightening line of tension through its movement from one scene to the next, each scene palpable with its evocative details. Meitner writes about,
the other neighbor freestyles on his porch about hoodlums falling from grace & unguarantees, three layers of crickets & our vast, unknowable insides (beautiful beautiful terrible).
Every word in these seven lines is strong and specific except for “unguarantees.” While I’m not sure I know fully what it means, I am certain that Meitner does, and here I long for her pitch-perfect evocation that defines the collection. But these moments of lost meaning are few and barely discernable, and at times they perhaps capture the uncanny contradiction that Meitner explores: those who must act and must speak directly cannot, and by keeping silent they both protect themselves and lose themselves.
The connection between the loss of voice or agency and the loss of self carries through the novel in poems about extraterrestrial abductions, religiosity, politics and even (or especially) marriage. In fact, Meitner explicitly connects the loss of agency she introduces through abduction to marriage in her poem “Faith-based Option”:
Speak as quickly as you can before you get married or abducted.
The third section of the book is titled “domestic spasms,” and most of its poems concern marriage and love relationships. It’s interesting to note, however, that while the poems about marriage sometimes talk about love, they more often talk about the trappings of marriage. The poem “Engagement” makes great use of this conceit. Meitner first introduces a neighbor and her “juicerator,” then writes, “She tried to get me to take it, / but I was sated with appliances; all registered / with stemware with nowhere to go but the altar.” It is as if the wedding gifts create an enclosure that trap the speaker and leave her no other option but to go through with the marriage. In “The Bar Code of Love” the couple show affection as they escape from the act of registering for gifts. The speaker claims:
we slipped from the store empty-handed, your body dashing & suspended next to mine.
Love, it seems, is much more liberating than marriage, and Meitner often writes her love poems in the context of travel or journeying. In the poem about custom declarations, Meitner writes, “I / came home / to you.” In “Treatise on Dwelling,” “Home / is the one who spends more time / trying to find you than anyone else.” In love, the self is both located and liberated. This, then, is the optimistic stance of Meitner’s collection. It is clear that the adolescents that Meitner writes about love themselves, and it is perhaps through that love that they can be vigilant. But Meitner’s makeshift instructions have a purpose, and that is to protect, and, as Meitner’s closing poem “Blow” demonstrates, even in love there is danger.
Michele Battiste is the author of Ink for an Odd Cartography and the forthcoming Uprising (Black Lawrence Press (2013). She is also the author of four chapbooks, the most of which is Lineage, forthcoming from Binge Press. You can find links to her other poetry reviews on her website http://www.michelebattiste.com.
Other books by Erika Meitner:
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By Michele Battiste:
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