Book Notes: The Doll Collection

doll_collection_cover“Not just toys, dolls signify much more than childhood,” writes poet Nicole Cooley in her introduction to The Doll Collection (Terrapin Books, 2016), a rich and complex anthology of doll-themed contemporary poetry edited by Diane Lockward. Dolls are imbued with our powerful, contradictory feelings about gender, race, class, mortality, and innocence. “Symbols of perfection, they both comfort and terrify… They are objects we recall with intense nostalgia but also bodies we dismember and destroy.”

Collecting dolls has been as much of a constant in my life as writing poetry. Both pursuits take me to the realm of imagination, where one is never “too grown-up” to communicate with one’s fantasies and fears. I was honored to have my poem “The Fear of Puppets and the Fear of Beautiful Women” included in this anthology, together with notable writers such as Denise Duhamel, Jeffrey Harrison, Enid Shomer, Cecilia Woloch, and many more.

The book stands out for its diverse cast of characters from doll history. Alongside the well-known Barbie, GI Joe, Mr. Potato Head, Ginny, and Raggedy Ann, we meet paper dolls of the Dionne Quintuplets, blow-up sex toys, jewel-box ballerinas, anatomical models, artists’ miniatures, teddy bears, and baby dolls in many stages of porcelain perfection or grotesque dismemberment. Dolls are burned, smashed, stolen, repaired, reconstituted like Frankenstein. They are preserved in museums, or in the homes of their now-grown owners, as a focal point for sweet or regretful family memories. The dolls in these poems remind us of love or its hard unsatisfying simulacrum, of fragility or a taunting imperviousness to time and loss.

“The dolls/are always being picked up and placed/by forces outside their control./Words are put into their mouths,” writes Elaine Terranova in the poem “Secrets”. Dolls give us the opportunity to act out both sides of the power dynamic, to identify with early memories of helplessness or vent our rage on someone who can’t really feel it…can she?

Several selections voiced the feelings of children confused or stifled by an adult agenda. “I was the live birth after the stillborn/one, crowned to be Mother’s little doll,” says the speaker of Joan Mazza’s “Little Doll”. Comparing herself to the identically-dressed doll children in her carriage, she says, “Undressed, baby dolls had smooth bodies,/no crevices. I’d be perfect, never play,/an untouched doll, if mother had her way.” By the poem’s end, “mother” is lowercase, suggesting the young girl’s rebellion. Michael Waters’ “Burning the Dolls” starts from a poignant historical anecdote: “In 1851, in John Humphrey Noyes’ free-love settlement in Oneida, New York, the communally-raised children, encouraged by the adults, voted to burn their dolls as representative of the traditional role of motherhood.” The child narrator lays her beloved rag doll on the pyre, but a lot more goes up in flames: “when her varnished face burst/in the furnace of my soul,/the waxy lips forever lost,//then I knew I’d no longer pray,/even with fire haunting me…”

Conversely, for some other poets, dolls represented childhood feelings of safety and trust, which the adult speakers wish they could recapture. In “When Catholics Believed in Limbo”, Mary Ellen Talley recalls a simple faith that led her and her friends to baptize her Little Women dolls. Lee Upton’s “To Be Blameless Is to Be Miniature” searches for a way back in to the dolls’ perfect world: “No one sleeps./No one gets comfortable here./You cannot stand inside innocence.” Alison Townsend begins her prose-poem “Madame Alexander’s Amy” with the line, “Two weeks after my mother’s death, the doll was waiting under the tree.” The speaker wanted to love this last gift from her mother, and in a way she did, but the doll (which she still owns) was also “an emissary from the country of death to tell me that childhood was over, and she was the last plaything”.

David Trinidad’s “Playing with Dolls” and Scott Wiggerman’s “Playing GI Joes” show the awakening of a gay identity through breaking the gender boundaries around toys. While Trinidad’s sestina ends sadly, with his parents forbidding him to play with his sisters’ Barbies (“You’re a boy”), we know he gets the last laugh because he’s now a well-regarded gay poet. Wiggerman’s delightful narrative reveals how hyper-macho toys have a homoerotic side just waiting for the right person to bring it out. His GI Joe likes “hot little loincloths attached with a pin” and volunteers for missions where he’ll be stripped and put into bondage. “Tied up, disciplined, tortured into a frenzy,/he was a master of man-to-man endurance,/revealing only name, rank, and serial number,/as a sly grin edged toward the scar on his cheek,/a mark that covered so many of our secrets.”

These are just a few highlights. Doll aficionados will find their own favorites in this must-have collection of 80+ poems about our uncanny little friends.

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Olivia, Agnes, and Emily approve of this book.

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A new soldier in town impresses Rose Sauvage-Grimpante with his interest in poetry.

Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: Cross Purposes

When visiting a friend in Toronto last month, I had the pleasure of discovering Glad Day Bookshop, the world’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore. One of my purchases was this 1989 essay collection, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn. There are too few books devoted to reworking Christian theology from a trauma perspective, so I’m always happy to find another. This one shares some of what I perceive to be the limitations of Second Wave feminist theology: binary thinking about gender, and a tendency to imitate the universalizing attitude of their opponents, assigning a single oppressive or liberatory meaning to an image (e.g. God the Father) that is actually experienced in a more complex way by diverse believers. That said, it’s an invigorating and necessary book that doesn’t hesitate to break taboos in order to be firmly on the side of survivors.

Not every essay resonated with me enough to blog about, but I’ll be posting about it now and then, to pull out the insights that meant the most to me. Today I’m looking at the first entry in the book, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker’s “For God So Loved the World?” Parker later expanded this critique of Atonement doctrines into Proverbs of Ashes, the hybrid memoir/theology book she co-wrote with another contributor to this volume, Rita Nakashima Brock. I’ve never gotten around to blog-review Proverbs because the theology is so interwoven with the narrative that it’s hard to summarize, so the executive-summary version here is a real help.

Brown and Parker state the central problem: women have a hard time realizing they are oppressed because they’ve been convinced (by religion, among other forces) that their suffering is justified. “The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus.” (pg.2)

As long as Christianity glorifies suffering, Brown and Parker say, women who stay in the church and try to reform it from within are like battered wives who believe they can change their abuser. Whether or not you agree with this strong statement of the case, they correctly, in my view, identify some dangers of the various Atonement doctrines that Christians have accepted.

In classical orthodox theology, the suffering and death of Jesus were required to save us from sin. The three main formulations of how this works are Christus Victor, Penal Satisfaction, and Moral Influence. “[T]hough the way in which suffering gives birth to redemption is diversely understood, every theory of the atonement commends suffering to the disciple” and therefore can keep Christians trapped in abusive situations. (pg.4)

The Christus Victor theory sees the Crucifixion as a supernatural confrontation between God and the forces of evil. In the Resurrection, God reveals that the power of love and goodness is stronger than that of sin and death. This is my own devotional approach to Jesus and the Cross. As I understand it, Jesus’ martyrdom was unique to his role as a divine being, not something we are supposed to emulate. Brown and Parker don’t give this theory the complex treatment it deserves, even in a short essay. They do make the valid point that in preaching and writing about Christus Victor, the reality of human suffering is often minimized as an illusion or a necessary prelude to a person’s spiritual rebirth.

I think they overstate the case when they say that “victimization never leads to triumph” (pg.7) and we should always refuse or fight instead. This isn’t actually an option for every abuse victim. In our haste to build a movement, let’s not set up a hierarchy of “good survivor” behaviors. Also, sometimes refusing suffering in the short-term means enabling it in the long-term, e.g. by not setting boundaries in a relationship before it reaches a tipping point of dysfunction. I don’t believe that submitting to suffering is a virtue in itself, but a mystical sense of oneness with Christus Victor helps me endure the suffering that is a by-product of my choice to resist abusive people and systems.

Penal substitution is the Atonement theory you’ll hear in evangelical churches and probably most Catholic ones. Liberal churches don’t talk about it much, but they generally don’t spell out an alternative, so the congregation absorbs it anyway through the hymns and lectionary readings. The average person thinks “Christ died for your sins” is the Gospel, because that’s the number-one point that televangelists and street preachers want to make you believe. Brown and Parker are ready to drive a stake through the heart of penal substitution, and I applaud that.

In brief, substitutionary atonement means: Sin is an offense against God’s goodness, but we are too flawed to be able to repay that debt, so Jesus, who was perfectly good, was the only one who could satisfy it by taking the punishment we deserved. What’s wrong with this picture?

First, it depicts God as a tyrant who is more concerned with offenses to his honor than with reducing the amount of suffering in the world. (We can see from the U.S. prison system that an emphasis on punishment over rehabilitation has made our society more unjust and violent.) The theory reflects medieval, monarchical norms that are not our political ideal today.

Second, purification through blood sacrifice is a concept taken from ritual practices in the ancient Jewish Temple. Is this framework as relevant to us as it was to Jesus’ audience? Brown and Parker additionally argue that it is a patriarchal displacement of the reverence we should have for the truly life-giving blood, which is women’s menstrual blood and birth flow. As an infertile woman in chronic pain from endometriosis, I feel like a second-rate female when I read this argument (talk about spiritualizing away suffering!), but if you have a better relationship with your uterus than I do, it’s worth thinking about. The authors are correct that patriarchal religions have sanctified certain kinds of bloodletting while projecting uncleanness onto the kind associated with women. On the other hand, the ability to participate in the blood/fertility archetype through symbolic means, when you can’t do it literally, can be a liberating way to “queer” fertility and divinely embodied creativity.

Third, Brown and Parker expose the abuse-enabling assumptions behind penal substitution. For me, that’s where this essay really shines. I remember making a journal entry about 6 years ago, when I’d just begun thinking of myself as a survivor: I suddenly realized that the relationship between God, Jesus, and humanity in Martin Luther’s simul justus et peccator doctrine was exactly like being the child of a narcissistic parent. The real me is sinful humanity, unacceptable and in line for punishment if I try to be authentic. Jesus is the false self I project in order to get “love” and be considered good: the perfect, obedient, enmeshed child, of one being with the Father. But this goodness is only imputed to me through a fiction we both collude in. It never feels like real acceptance.

Brown and Parker write:

The imitator of Christ, which every faithful person is exhorted to be, can find herself choosing to endure suffering because she has become convinced that through her pain another whom she loves can escape pain… But this glorification of suffering as salvific…encourages women who are being abused to be more concerned about their victimizer than about themselves. Children who are abused are forced most keenly to face the conflict between the claims of a parent who professes love and the inner self which protests violation. When a theology identifies love with suffering, what resources will its culture offer to such a child? And when parents have an image of a God righteously demanding the total obedience of “his” son–even obedience to death–what will prevent the parent from engaging in divinely sanctioned child abuse? (pgs.8-9)

The third traditional Atonement theory they critique is Moral Influence, first proposed by medieval theologian Peter Abelard as a rebuttal of Anselm’s penal satisfaction model. This is the one I hear most often in liberal sermons. Abelard contended that the obstacle to reconciliation is not God’s wrath but our unwillingness to believe in God’s mercy. Jesus’ willingness to die for us should be conclusive proof that God loves us and deserves our grateful obedience.

On the surface, Moral Influence seems humanistic and empowering, with its promise that our peaceful forbearance in the face of mistreatment can inspire wrongdoers to repent and reform. But this theology can resemble the false beliefs that make us try to salvage harmful relationships: If I never lose my temper… if I love him more unselfishly… if she sees how much she’s hurting me… they’ll stop the abuse. Moral Influence is perpetrator-centric, and it is least likely to work on the worst offenders because they are incapable of empathy or honest self-assessment. Politically, it also implies that marginalized people’s suffering is ours to consume:

Theoretically, the victimization of Jesus should suffice for our moral edification, but, in fact, in human history, races, classes, and women have been victimized while at the same time their victimization has been heralded as a persuasive reason for inherently sinful men to become more righteous. (pg.12)

…In this pattern of relationship, communion is maintained through the threat of death. The actual deaths or violations of women are part of the system just as necessarily as the death of Jesus is part of the system that asks for us to be “morally persuaded” to be faithful to God…

…To glorify victims of terrorization by attributing to them a vulnerability that warrants protection by the stronger is to cloak the violation. Those who seek to protect are guilty. Justice occurs when terrorization stops, not when the condition of the terrorized is lauded as a preventive influence. (pg.13)

Brown and Parker conclude by surveying some contemporary attempts to rescue Atonement theology from its oppressive past. They give qualified support to the Suffering God theory developed by Ronald Goetz, Edgar Brightman, and the process theologians. “God is unfinished. Suffering occurs because of the conflict between what is and what could be within God. Hence, God participates in the suffering of all of the creation, groaning together with the creation in the travail of perfection coming to birth.” (pgs.15-16)

The problem is that solidarity is not necessarily liberation. We’re still left with the question of why Jesus’ death, or anyone else’s, should be effective, especially when the suffering in question is not an “act of God” (disease, natural disasters) but deliberately caused by human beings. Perhaps a partial answer is that God’s willingness to be wounded by empathy is a role model for us to come out of denial and into true relationship (pg.17). Nonetheless, Brown and Parker would prefer an emphasis on choosing the goodness of life, with suffering as a by-product:

Redemption happens when people refuse to relinquish respect and concern for others, when people refuse to relinquish fullness of feeling, when people refuse to give up seeing, experiencing, and being connected and affected by all of life. God must be seen as the one who most fully refuses to relinquish life… The ongoing resurrection within us of a passion for life and the exuberant energy of this passion testifies to God’s spirit alive in our souls. (pg.19)

I think this part of the essay would have been more successful if they’d acknowledged the paradox of suffering: that we need theology both to help us reject and resist unjust suffering, and to help us find meaning and dignity when suffering is unavoidable. Now, how do we discern which situation is which? Abstract, universal theories can’t substitute for our personal intuition and the guidance of our trusted friends and teachers. No theology is abuse-proof.

Since I’m not attached to calling myself Christian anymore, I can say somewhat more objectively that the authors’ redefinition of “Christianity” as a kind of humanism that rejects all of the faith’s core distinctives–Christ’s divine nature, redemption through the Cross, original sin, the need for salvation, and the historical Resurrection–is almost as crazy-making as it was when I aggressively believed in all those doctrines. Just be a vegan, don’t argue with everyone that your mushroom is a steak.

Maybe this doublespeak is an unfortunate side effect of the authors’ determination to stand and fight rather than suffer. I feel it’s kinder and wiser to take the hit, to grieve for my loss of a home in the church, than to turn the church inside-out so it becomes what I need. I can critique the worst of the abuse-enabling doctrines while accepting the fact that the basic orientation of Christianity, even at its most liberal, is more self-denying than I want to be, and therefore not something I can “reform” my way back into. Do it if it works for you. I’ll visit sometimes.

Book Review Roundup: They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab

Welcome back, readers. Blogging has been light this month while I prepare my Two Natures galleys for submission to book review journals. If you are a reviewer and would like an advance reading copy (Kindle edition), email me.

I’ve read more good books this spring than I’ve had time to blog about individually, so in the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some roundups of books-in-brief, grouped around various themes.

If you want to scare your teenagers away from alcohol and drugs, Gil Fagiani’s new poetry collection Logos (Guernica Editions, 2016) and Eve Tushnet’s debut novel Amends (CreateSpace, 2015) present a brutally honest and unglamorous look at addiction and the difficulties of recovery. And they’re much funnier, and better-written, than any PSA.

Logos is a collection of persona poems set at a heroin treatment center of that name, in the South Bronx in the 1960s. It comes out of Fagiani’s own experience, first as an inpatient there, and later as a social worker at a Bronx psychiatric hospital and the director of a rehab center in Brooklyn. The desperation of addiction has a way of levelling distinctions between races, classes, and professional backgrounds. The first-person narrator of some of these poems, presumably a stand-in for the poet’s younger self, stepped off the privileged path of a military college cadet to do anti-poverty activism in Spanish Harlem, where he got caught up in the drug culture. But his delusional, hand-to-mouth life is no different from the teen prostitutes and con men who are rooting through the same garbage cans for the dregs of liquor bottles. In this poetry collection, Fagiani expresses gratitude for the program that turned his life around, while showing that its zero-tolerance methods condemned some other residents to fall back into deadly habits.

“Logos” is a traditional term for the Godhead in Christian theology, based on the description of Jesus as the divine Word in the Gospel of John. However, the only god in evidence for most of the poor souls in this treatment center is the director, nicknamed “The Great Him”, who justifies his humiliating punishment regime on the grounds that addicts are all manipulative, self-centered liars who need to be tough-loved into submission. As Fagiani notes in the introduction, Logos was a peer-led community inspired by Chuck Dederich’s Synanon, which used confrontational “encounter sessions” to “strip down a person’s defense mechanisms to uncover the real person.”

Tushnet’s Amends takes aim at this very notion that the self is some nugget of sincerity we can excavate from the dross of social performance, rather than something we construct–and reveal to ourselves–in the act of choosing which personae to perform. In troubling our moralistic judgments about surface and depth, and in the humane values underpinning her aphoristic wit, she shows herself to be an aesthetic heir to Oscar Wilde.

The premise of Amends is pure 21st-century but its concerns are as old as the Garden of Eden. A half-dozen alcoholics from all walks of life are selected for a reality-TV show set in a residential rehab clinic. When healing and repentance become co-opted into the postmodern performance of identity, is transformative grace still possible? Sometimes, incredibly, it is, but not always, and not in a fashion that anyone associated with the show could control or predict.

Tushnet, a popular blogger on Catholic sexual ethics, is (for the most part) an equal-opportunity satirist. The Christian doubletalk of crisis pregnancy centers, pretentious queer theater, and aging Young Turk neo-conservative columnists are all grist for her mill. Her indictment of our society is sharp, yet love can still break through our egotistic illusions, as in the poignant, redemptive “bromance” between Gair, a celibate gay Christian athlete, and Dylan, his straight frat-boy best friend, whose drunken antics become less adorable as he ages.

In my opinion, the only flaw in this hilarious and heartbreaking novel is the character Sharptooth, a whiny young woman who identifies as a wolf. She is depicted rather two-dimentionally with all of the insulting stereotypes typically leveled at fringe identities–basically, a phony who wants to call attention to herself because strange identities are trendy and allow you to win power struggles by calling the other person an oppressor. However, “otherkin” is a real identity category that some people sincerely believe applies to them, a fact that most of Tushnet’s readers probably don’t know. To me it seemed like “punching-down” humor to mock a group of people who rarely have any positive representation to counter this depiction. Whatever you think of otherkin, I felt some vicarious shame whenever she came onstage, because trauma survivors and genderqueer people are often silenced with the same caricature that we just want to be treated like special snowflakes. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book. Read it for the jokes, stay for the grace.

The Dark Door: C.M. Royer’s Spiritual Abuse Survivor Memoir

I owe Caleigh Royer a debt of gratitude because her blog inspired me to start studying Tarot last year. I found her online some years ago through one of the spiritual abuse survivor blogs for ex-fundamentalist Christians, probably No Longer Quivering or Love, Joy, Feminism. When I saw on her Facebook page that she was writing a memoir about her journey to independence, I eagerly pre-ordered the e-book of The Dark Door, and was not disappointed. In fact, though I thought I’d worked through most of those old memories of my oppressive upbringing, Royer’s sincere, vulnerable storytelling went straight to my heart and reminded me of the pain and fear of living with narcissistic parents.

Royer is only in her mid-20s but she is strong and wise beyond her years. The Dark Door recounts her break for independence at age 18 when she dared to fall in love with and marry a young man against her parents’ wishes, and her subsequent de-conversion from Christianity as she processed the ways that religion had been used to keep her under her abusive father’s thumb. Unlike some of the other bloggers in this genre, she did not become a rationalist or atheist, but instead is developing a personal spiritual practice based on psychic intuition, spirit guides, Tarot, and universal values of love and fairness.

What’s striking is how much our stories have in common, despite the different religious backgrounds. Abusive families are depressingly alike, regardless of ideology, and a dysfunctional religious community is just the family system writ large.

Caleigh grew up in a fundamentalist subculture where fathers had spiritual “headship” over their families. A girl could not spend time with, let alone date or marry, a boy unless her father gave permission. As the oldest daughter in a large family, she was pressed into the role of caretaker and disciplinarian for her siblings. It didn’t matter what her own dreams and interests were. Because of their patriarchal belief system, the church elders gave the family no support in dealing with her father’s violence and pornography addiction. Caleigh was required to submit to his will no matter what. When she fell in love with a young man from their church, she was in for the fight of her life–which she won, at the price of severing ties with her biological family. It didn’t seem that her father had any basis for objecting to her engagement to Phil; the man simply craved total control over his child’s life, which was threatened when she found another object for her affections. This reminded me of how it drove my bio mom completely mad when I found the man I would marry, and later when we planned to have a child. Narcissists hate competition.

After she and Phil succeeded in getting married, with his parents’ support, the honeymoon period was overshadowed by her chronic illness (eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia) and depression in the aftermath of trauma. She was insightful and brave enough to realize that she needed therapy to change the bad patterns she’d learned at home. Reading this part, I thought of the brilliant closing moments of the film The Graduate, where Elaine and Ben’s elation at pulling off their romantic escape from her mother turns to shell-shock and withdrawal from one another. Once the adrenaline rush of battle subsides, perhaps they start to doubt whether they can break their parents’ pattern and have a happy marriage, and the programmed guilt of filial disloyalty kicks in. All of this happened to me as a new bride.

I can also relate to the heartbreak of her realization that the religion that had sustained her in the depths of her abuse was no longer the right place for her to continue her healing. She went through guilt, bereavement, fear of the unknown, and fear of disappointing and losing her friends, but never stopped testing the evidence and logic for Bible-based Christianity as she’d always understood it. Ultimately she concluded that for her, the Christian God was too intertwined with the image of her earthly father and the male religious authorities who’d justified his abuse. That isn’t really my issue, but some of her other reasons completely hit home for me. Trauma healing for both of us has meant valuing ourselves and trusting our personal experience, which puts us in conflict with the authority-based, self-sacrificing worldview of historic Christianity.

“There was no place for a story that ends badly in Christianity,” Royer observes, recounting how her church small groups couldn’t handle her abuse narrative. It posed too much of a challenge to their sentimental ideal of family. After she de-converted, she felt relief that “I no longer felt any obligation to apologize for being angry. I could be angry at my parents and their abuse without being reminded to forgive ‘as God has forgiven you.’ I was free to take responsibility for my own thoughts and actions and I had no fear of offending an unseen God.”

A little further on in this account, she says that “To trust my gut was the least Christian thing I could do. I was told it was trusting myself instead of God.” One can certainly see how predators could deploy this doctrine to suppress their victims’ warning signals. In my progressive church culture, I haven’t found such a stark opposition between revealed and empirical knowledge, but to my mind we emphasize external political or charitable activities at the expense of teaching people to cultivate their spiritual discernment. Mystical intuition is not denigrated so much as neglected, and somewhat limited by what can be plausibly squared with the Bible. I’m with Caleigh when she says, “Reaching into Tarot has healed the distrust I had in myself.”

Royer is a young self-taught author whose style is simple and direct. The memoir had some recurring grammatical errors and typos, which one more round of copy-editing would have cured. But if this story resonates with you at all, you won’t mind the rough patches. Get yourself a copy today.

Trusting Tootle

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The Young Master, at age 3.75, is wild about robots and trains. Three times a day, he demands that I read him Robots, Robots Everywhere, a Little Golden Book about our transhumanist future. He has also discovered the Little Golden Books Classics set that someone gave us at his baby shower. Not a day goes by without us re-reading at least some pages of Tootle and Scuffy the Tugboat, both written in the 1940s by Gertrude Crampton and illustrated by Tibor Gergely.

It’s curious how some books acquire classic status, re-purchased by generations of parents and well-wishers, perhaps without much thought about the meaning of the story. Gergely’s charming artwork epitomizes mid-20th-century picture book design: the optimistic fascination with industrial machinery, somehow peacefully coexisting with lush pastoral scenes, the made and the built environments equally full of wonder and personal detail. Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain.

However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told. They remind me of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, like “The Fir-Tree” and “The Little Mermaid”, where a young dreamer is violently punished for aspiring to a different life. Scuffy, a toy boat, thinks he was “made for better things” than sailing in a child’s bathtub, so he floats away on the brook, down a large river, and is almost lost at sea before his owner coincidentally rescues him. His adventures, though sometimes scary, look thrilling, so it’s very disappointing to me that the story ends with him saying that the bathtub is where a tugboat belongs. He’s also as insufferable at the end as the beginning, bragging that he knows his place, with exactly the same tone and words that he used to describe his destiny as an explorer. Self-awareness is apparently not as important in this vision of child-rearing. Resist the hegemonic narrative, Scuffy!

Tootle fares even worse. He’s like the anti-Ferdinand the Bull. His story is, for me, an example of what’s wrong with traditional education and discipline practices, as well as a metaphor for how trauma hampers the inner child’s creativity. That’s a lot for one little engine to carry, I know, but bear with me.

Bill, the engineer-teacher at the Lower Trainswitch School, gives the baby locomotives a long list of rules to obey, without explanation, if they want to grow up to be big important trains. Obviously, we readers can understand why “Stopping for a Red Flag Waving” and “Staying on the Rails No Matter What” are safety measures for trains. The point is that the students aren’t given reasons, so they don’t learn how to interpret the rules when they conflict.

Tootle is kind of…special. Not to read these words too anachronistically, but his sound is described as “a gay little tootle” and the engineers call his behavior “queer”! He loves to go fast, but obeying the rules, not so much. He keeps breaking the most important one, by secretly running off the rails to race with a beautiful black horse, frolic in the buttercups, and make echoes in a rain barrel. When the engineers figure it out, they conspire with everyone in the town to hide in Tootle’s favorite meadow and wave red flags whenever he makes a move. Tootle is provoked to tears:

“Whenever I start, I have to stop. Why did I think this meadow was such a fine place? Why don’t I ever see a green flag?”

Just as the tears were ready to slide out of his boiler, Tootle happened to look back over his coal car. On the tracks stood Bill, and in his hand was a big green flag. “Oh!” said Tootle.

He puffed up to Bill and stopped.

“This is the place for me,” said Tootle. “There is nothing but red flags for locomotives that get off their tracks.”

Indoctrination complete.

I admit, when I’m wrestling the Young Master into his four layers of outdoor clothing for a 5-minute trip to school, and he hops away with his pants around his ankles because he saw a squirrel through the glass door, I sympathize with the impulse to train a child to stay on the rails. But good parenting requires more complex discernment than following a single rule without give-and-take or context. Focus and curiosity are both valuable traits that are sometimes at odds. Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy, as radical 100 years ago as it is today, was based on trusting the child to educate himself in a structured environment. The traditional method depicted in Tootle assumes that children’s undirected impulses are either irrelevant or rebellious.

The line in Tootle that makes tears slide out of my boiler is “Why did I think this meadow was such a fine place?” They have frightened and shamed him into turning against his own joy. As an abuse survivor, I know what that’s like. I know the disgust I feel at my own writing when some negative comment (“you can’t be a Christian and write about gay sex!”) sends me into a shame spiral. I know the burning embarrassment that I might have loved my characters too much, talked about that love too much, exposed myself as a weird and boring 12-year-old fangirl. Like Tootle’s teachers, my mother controlled me by training me to see danger where there was none. The red flags in my meadow are very old habits of staying safe by hiding what really mattered to me. Once they were essential defenses, now they’re just triggers that keep me from expressing my creative powers.

How do I handle re-reading these stories to Shane? I tell him, “Mommy doesn’t like the message of this story, so Mommy is going to make up her own ending. When you’re old enough to read, you can read the real thing and decide whether you agree with it.” And I wait for Mallory Ortberg to take them down in her Children’s Stories Made Horrific satire column. (Her version of The Runaway Bunny tells you all you need to know about my childhood.)

So run with the horses, kids. But look both ways before you cross the tracks.

Mommy says, “And then Tootle ran off to San Francisco where he could be himself! The end.”

Blow It Out Your Sinatra: Poems from Paul Fericano’s “The Hollywood Catechism”

The cover of Paul Fericano’s poetry collection The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press, 2015) shows a smoldering black-and-white movie still of Burt Lancaster as con-artist preacher Elmer Gantry, with his bedroom eyes and well-thumped Bible. This characteristically American blend of flim-flam, movie idols, and popular Christianity sets the tone of this entertaining and original book.

Many of these poems would be considered light verse, like the opening number, “The Actor’s Creed”:

…I believe in the Holy Spielberg,
the holy casting couch,
the communion of press agents,
the forgiveness of Sally Field,
the resurrection of my career,
and life everlasting without Tom Hanks.
Amen.

The real joke is how easily these wisecracks fall into the rhythm of familiar prayers that we repeat without much thought. We might as well be praying to Spielberg–he’s got more money than God, as they say. Like the characters in our childhood Bible stories, celebrities occupy a realm between reality and fantasy. Even when we lose faith in them, they retain some of their glamour, their power to make us nostalgic for the simple joys of worship.

This poignancy gives heft to the book’s most memorable poems, such as the tour de force “Howl of Lon Chaney, Jr.”, a take-off on Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in honor of B-movie horror actor Larry Talbot, “the Wolf Man”. Fericano writes compassionately of the dark side of the Hollywood dream, the loneliness of addiction and lost popularity. Substituting “Universal Studios” for “Moloch” in Ginsberg’s version, the meaning is still the same:

Universal the slaughterhouse of essence! Universal the
flesh-grinding boneless junkyard and studio of
terror! Universal whose films are USDA graded!
Universal the meat cleaver of inspection! Universal
the concrete productions!

Universal whose checkbook is bottom line! Universal whose
life is zombie profit! Universal whose thoughts
are small implosions! Universal whose head is a cannabis
fire pit! Universal whose heart is a ticking bomb!

The nyuk-nyuk’s don’t stop with his author bio: “Since 1971 his poetry and prose have appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in various underground and above-ground literary and media outlets… Loading the Revolver with Real Bullets (Second Coming Press, 1977), a collection of his work partly funded by the state of California, achieved notoriety in 1978, when one of its poems, ‘The Three Stooges at a Hollywood Party’, was read on the floor of the California State Senate as a reason to abolish the California Arts Council.”

On a more serious note, Paul is also the director of Instruments of Peace/SafeNet, a nonprofit reconciliation group for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Visit his blog, A Room with a Pew, to learn about his latest efforts to help victims obtain restitution from the Catholic Church.

Enjoy the poems below, which he has kindly given me permission to reprint.

 

The Three Stooges Meet Charles Bukowski In Heaven

The day is like any other day in Paradise
where angels hang out on street corners in between gigs

smoking filtered cigarettes drinking ginger ale
and swapping stories about the Son of Man.

Everyone has an eye fixed on Jesus.
He’s on his knees in an alley shooting dice

with the Three Stooges
and the poor bastards are losing their shirts.

The Savior of the World is on fire.
In flowing red robe he rattles the bones in his hand

brings them to his ear shakes them like the Second Coming
and blows on them once for luck.

He arcs his fist before release and shouts:
Baby needs a new pair of shoes!

then tosses them with the same force his father summoned
to create the Milky Way.

When he flashes that wide resurrection smile
the one he showed the Romans right before they nailed him,

he scoops up his winnings with a wink and a nod
and everyone knows the Lamb of God is on a roll.

The Stooges are victims of divine intervention.
They make the sign of the cross and Jesus smiles.

I like you guys, he says, slapping their faces affectionately.
And just like that three morons become saints.

Leaning against a wall drinking beer from a bottle
always cold never empty is Charles Bukowski.

He shifts his weight like a man itching to start something
eyeing the action as if he’s writing his last poem.

Jesus stands now and introduces them.
The Stooges pull back unsure of what to expect from a guy

who once threw up on Norman Mailer and just last week
tried to look up the Virgin Mary’s dress.

Bukowski hesitates, too. He remembers almost losing an eye
in a pie fight and watches their fingers closely now

the air so choked with mistrust even the Holy Ghost is scared.
That’s when Jesus stands on his head.

It’s a minor miracle, not like changing a Beatles’ song
into a jingle for running shoes, but it breaks the tension at last.

Sighs of relief rise up like hosannas and everyone laughs,
especially the Son of God who isn’t wearing underpants.

****
Sinatra, Sinatra

Sexual reference:
A protruding sinatra
is often laughed at by serious women.

Medical procedure:
A malignant sinatra
must be cut out by a skilled surgeon.

Violent persuasion:
A sawed-off sinatra
is a dangerous weapon at close range.

Congressional question:
Do you deny the charge of ever being
involved in organized sinatra?

Prepared statement:
Kiss my sinatra.
Blow it out your sinatra.

Financial question:
Will supply-side sinatra halt inflation?

Empty expression:
The sinatra stops here.
The sinatra is quicker than the eye.

Strategic question:
Do you think it’s possible to win
a limited nuclear sinatra?

Stupid assertion:
Eat sinatra.
Hail Mary full of sinatra.

Serious reflection:
Sinatra this, sinatra that.
Sinatra do, sinatra don’t.
Sinatra come, sinatra go.
There’s no sinatra like show sinatra.

Historical question:
Is the poet who wrote this poem still alive?

Biblical fact:
Man does not live by sinatra alone.

“For Your Own Good”: Leah Horlick’s Tarot-Inspired Poetry of Survival

I discovered Canadian poet Leah Horlick via an interview at Little Red Tarot, an excellent blog with an interest in queer and feminist interpretations of the cards. Horlick’s breathtaking second full-length collection, For Your Own Good (Caitlin Press, 2015), breaks the silence around intimate partner violence in same-sex relationships. Jewish tradition, nature spirituality, and archetypes from Tarot cards build a framework for healing. This book is valuable for its specificity about the dynamics of abusive lesbian partnerships, which may not fit our popular culture’s image of domestic violence. Horlick shows how the closet and the invisibility of non-physical abuse make it difficult for these victims to name what is happening to them. The book’s narrative arc is hopeful and empowering.

I recognize pieces of my family’s story in many books about abuse, but I usually have to do some mental editing and transposition. Not to discount the importance of second-wave feminism in broaching this taboo subject, but the classic texts universalize a male-against-female model of abuse that erases the distinct dynamics of female perpetration. Engulfment and gaslighting play a larger role; it’s more like being smothered by a fog, than invaded by a clearly separate attacker.  For Your Own Good made me feel seen and heard. I wonder if the title is a nod to the book of the same name by Alice Miller, one of the few feminist writers of her generation who didn’t impose a moralistic gender binary on trauma.

Compulsory heterosexuality (to use Adrienne Rich’s term) is a force multiplier for dysfunction in lesbian relationships, such as my parents’. It’s hard to recognize that your relationship is abusive when no one will confirm that it even exists. Horlick identifies this double silencing, so familiar from my childhood, in “The Disappearing Woman”:

…She doesn’t give you black eyes, and
the doctors do not see her, not in your

long hair, your good earrings, in your quiet
descriptions of pain. They would say

boyfriend. They would see husband. She
does not give you black eyes,

she is not your husband, and you do not
say anything.

In the Collective Tarot, an LGBT-themed deck that Horlick used for inspiration, the suit of Swords is called “Suit of Feathers”. Swords correspond to intellect, the element of air, and the cards in this suit have more scenes of pain and conflict than the other three. When Sword cards come up for me in a reading, it often symbolizes working with trauma memories or intellectual defenses. The multi-part poem “Suit of Feathers” in For Your Own Good depicts moments of piercing insight that motivate the narrator to leave her abuser. I pictured “suit” also as a garment made of feathers, a disguise that a fairy-tale heroine would wear to escape from a wicked stepmother or incestuous father (as in Perrault’s “Donkey-skin”). Anne Sexton’s Freudian fairy-tale poems in Transformations are part of this book’s ancestry.

Andrea Routley at Caitlin Press has kindly given me permission to reprint the book’s closing poem, “Anniversary”, below. It could be describing me today, word-for-word. (Leah and Andrea, I apologize that this blog template strips out the indents in the second line of each couplet.)

Follow the author on Twitter at @LeahHorlick, and read more excerpts from For Your Own Good in these online publications:

“The Tower”, “Little Voice”, and “Liberation”: Canadian Poetries
“Starfish” (with audio): The Bakery Poetry
“Amygdala” (with audio): The Bakery Poetry
“Bruises”: The Collagist
Video of her reading on YouTube

Anniversary

It has taken five years and fifteen hundred
kilometres to get away, and closer

to the mountains. I can see them–
every day, like I always wanted. Near,

and distant. Every day I can ask people
not to touch me–

on the bus, on the beach, or in my new kitchen.
Or I could ask them to–

which, lately, is harder. How can it still
feel so soon? She has never been

near this new body of mine–
short-haired, tattooed, very strong

and very, very fast, now. I carry a chunk of rose
quartz the size of my thumb for safety.

I have sworn to myself a life of people
who know when to stop. I promised–

and spent my first night in the new apartment drawing
circles in salt and rain, whispering

to my old self, come here. I built this
for you. I promised.

Two Poems from Mary A. Koncel’s “Closer to Day”

The prose poem is the perfect form for surreal vignettes that combine the tell-it-slant quality of poetry with the relaxed unfolding of a prose line. As in fables, the first sentences establish mysterious happenings as the new normal. There is no time for technical explanations of this strange world that waits inside our own. Mary A. Koncel’s assured voice convinces us that we live in a place where farmers burst into flames, lusty women smell men’s ripeness in the air, and horses wait prayerfully for their owners to fall back in love.

Koncel’s debut chapbook of prose poems, Closer to Day, was published in 1999 by Quale Press, one of the numerous small presses that enrich our Western Massachusetts culture. The editors have kindly given me permission to share the work below. For more of her work, check out her 2003 full-length collection from Tupelo Press, You Can Tell the Horse Anything.

The Neighborhood Man

A dog is rolling in the grass. A man walks by and thinks the dog is drowning. But the man’s not sure because he’s just a neighbor. The dog is very convincing, turning over and over, its long legs kicking up clumps of grass. The man strips off his suit, drops to his knees, and rolls in after the dog. He hopes the dog can hold on just a while longer.

The man is having problems. He’s getting very tired, barely able to keep his head above the grass. It’s very late. He hopes this will be over soon. But the dog is getting smaller, the grass much deeper.

****

Bless This Night

It’s almost like heaven out here. Ten miles of angel-pin turns, glittering blacktop, then a pair of straight yellow lines leading right to sweet soul of opossum, twin spirits of skunks.

Driving home, I think about Saint Francis, imagine him wandering through the woods, a flock of swallows buzzing his left eardrum, a raccoon or two draped over his shoulders like a favorite cardigan. A tall, awkward man, he had hands with white palms and strong straight fingers.

Out here, under these brooding stars and stark moon, animals are just as abundant. Cut loose from fur and body, they languish along the road: rabbits begin to hurry but stop in mid-air, a fox sniffs its blood, surprised by its cold, exquisite beauty, while tree frogs swallow deep, vaguely tasting the last sounds in their throats.

“Keep still,” Saint Francis would warn if he walked among these animals. “Keep still.” One hand pressed against his lips, the other held in blessing, he would stop at each one that raised its head and wanted more.

I could stop. I could stop, drop to my knees, and hold out my hands like Saint Francis, tell these animals that they have been good, good and wild. It’s time to surrender their hearts to me, their long and mournful howls, their hunger. Bless this night, bless this road and all that makes it heaven.

 

Two Poems from Arthur Powers’s “Edgewater”

Award-winning poet and fiction writer Arthur Powers’s work is informed by his Catholic faith and his concern for the dignity of the common man and woman. His profound short fiction collection, A Hero for the People (Press 53, 2013), drew on his activist work on behalf of subsistence farmers and workers in rural Brazil. I was pleased to blurb his poetry chapbook, Edgewater, just out from Finishing Line Press. This collection of vernacular sonnets takes us into the American heartland past and present, finding the sacramental quality in modest gestures such as a pioneer’s gift of roses for his work-worn wife, or a puddle in an urban snowbank that reminds an immigrant of the idyllic lakes of his lost homeland. Arthur has kindly shared two poems from Edgewater below.

Nauvoo To Bishop Hill

(Summer/1977)

From Nauvoo up to Knoxville, winding
the Mississippi’s green hills hot in
summer, the locusts singing alive
the Illinois sun, we moved slowly,
following curving gray roads that led

through myths of our imagination.
At Knoxville, where the old college stands,
a gray stone soldier guarding
a century, we stopped a moment
in the shade, then on to Galesburg,

the brick heat and sun bright factories,
the railroad switches, the neat white box
of Carl Sandburg’s home, the quick, cheap
restaurant that serves pancakes in his
memory. And so to Bishop Hill.

The green square caught in antique trees
and cubic buildings like children’s blocks
placed neatly around it, strong clean Swedes
working together to carve a dream
out of the midlands of America:

the heat, the locusts, the sharp white sun,
the silence of the dream emptied out
onto the prairie: nothing, nothing
is left, O Illinois, but locusts
singing alive tight summer sun.

****

Sunday Afternoon/Missouri

I met a girl from Hannibal. She said:

“The house where I grew up was built by slaves,
of brick and tall wood, and it seemed the seasons
were woven into the wood. In October,
when we stood in the high ceiling’d rooms
and looked out over the fields, black after
harvest, the leaves on the trees gleamed red.
Then, when the season turned and in the dead
of winter the corn stubs stood like graves
in rows, the wind would blow the leaves away.

The house stood white and naked when it snowed.
They tore it down to build a road.”

We walked along the riverfront. She said:

“Here, in town, there used to be a park
where we’d go to watch the river, slow
and brown, and the stark fields
of Illinois across the river. They
built a grain elevator that blocked
the view.”
Yes, that too, I said.
And a car door slamming shut on a
quiet Sunday.
And Mark Twain dead.

Chapbook Spotlight: Two Poems from Ruth Thompson’s “Crazing”

Contemporary poet Ruth Thompson inspires me with her vision of mature womanhood and life in harmony with nature. I reviewed her previous full-length collection, Woman With Crows, on the blog last year.

The mature and courageous poems in her latest chapbook, Crazing (Saddle Road Press, 2015), teach us to discern the difference between natural and unnatural change. She responds with extraordinary grace and playfulness to the scattering of her mental and physical abilities in old age, the “crazing” of the glaze that gives the vessel its character, the cracks in the body’s shell from which the spirit emerges like a baby chick. At the same time, her embrace of the cycles of nature empassions her to resist alterations that are sudden, irreversible, and a dead end for life on this planet. She mourns not for herself but for lost tree species, droughts, and future generations who may “die thirsty, telling stories of our green shade.” Her acceptance of her personal body’s limitations shows us a humbler, more sustainable way to inhabit the body of Mother Earth.

She has kindly permitted me to share two poems from the chapbook below. (Full disclosure: Ruth previously blurbed my new collection, Bullies in Love.)

Mary Speaks

How relieved I was when it was over.
How easily I vanished from the story.

When it was finished, given over to their
busy hands, I slipped away like a fish.

I bundled myself back on the donkey,
unwound the old stars to show the way.

In the dark of the moon I came home.

Now I pour silica over my shoulders.
In both my palms I feel the shift.

Some men thank the god for dying
and the Mother who made him,

but these men will have no Mother.
No matter. The boy is dead.

Far away the rains begin.
First flood, then riversilt: his flesh.

Body sloughs like a stalk of wheat
lays another spiral in the grain.

Here at the bony heart of things,
I dance the red sun up over the hills.

****

Losing the Words

Wantons, they’d give themselves to anyone!

See how they slip in and out of one another’s clothes?

See how–dressed in zinnia-colored feathers, giggling–
they settle to the lip like birds, then flicker away?

Oh, they hide behind the roof of my mouth with flashlights,
cast firefly shadows on my stuttering tongue–

dash onto the stage and off, grinning madly–
above them that terrible sign: Exeunt Omnes.

For one day all of them–
all the thousand thousand names of God–

will fall in love. Conjoin. Merge
into the unkempt darkness behind the stars.

They will be gone forever. Then silence
will enter the echoing chambers of my mind.

It will speak its name at last.
I will say Yes.