Carolyne Wright's MANIA KLEPTO

Robert McNamara

Carolyne Wright’s Mania Klepto: The Book of Eulene records the adventures of a doppelganger. Wright, who has published five books of poetry, including Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire, winner of the Blue Lynx Prize and the American Book Award, as well as three volumes of translation from Bengali and Spanish, describes Eulene in the essay “Disquieting Muse: The Eulene Series” as having arrived as a “nameless, amorphous” figure “cropping up on otherwise well-behaved poetic exercises” when Wright was in Syracuse University’s writing program. Despite her genesis in a writing program, Eulene has no near literary relations. Berryman’s Henry Pussycat may be an uncle thrice-removed, but no closer—Eulene gets along fine without guilt. Closest, perhaps, is the double in Dostoevsky’s “A Raw Youth”: as the main character says, “one is sensible and rational oneself, but the other self is impelled to do something perfectly senseless, and sometimes very funny.” He offers as an example the double of “a doctor who suddenly began whistling in church, at his father's funeral.” Wright’s Eulene stands in the same relation to the canons of judgment and good taste: she refuses to take them seriously.

Her perversity is, for the most part, funny, even silly, and occasionally naive. The title poem, for instance, sets her at odds with consumer culture, to which her response is an inverted kleptomania: “Eulene never comes to shoplift / but to leave things,” a “subtle Appleseeder / of an excess of possessions.” Elsewhere she is the sucker for self-help books (“Creative Rage and How to Prioritize / Your Options”), the fall-girl in a world gone hard (“She still believed / in potlatch over scalp, hand / over fist”), or the pretender to culture who shamelessly

sits in the ancient history
museum café on no-admission-charge afternoons,
eating melon balls and goat cheese
off other visitors’ abandoned plates.

At other moments, Eulene’s vision approaches critique in its awareness of the brutality that lies just below the surface of life predicated on consumption:

Eulene stalks down the street
her eyes burning the whole show
thin, her mind’s hands knocking out
the flim-flam frames that prettify
life’s knuckled force.

But such moments aren’t sustained, and aren’t meant to be. Eulene’s drive is to survive, and she does what it takes, or is ready to try to: 

Any day now Eulene
could fly in from the Antilles
with a prime-time script
scribbled on hotel stationery,
her briefcase crammed with towels
from the Granada Hilton—
everything she needed to make it
through the revolution.

Every Eulene, it seems, is transitory: a few pages farther on we’ll find her exploring her inner ascetic, then undergoing an irreverent dark night of the soul that culminates in a doppelganging raised to a higher power: “When she looks down, a stranger’s shadow / glides from underneath her shoes.”   

Through all these personality shifts, Eulene’s constant is that she is a woman negotiating a world of contradictions. In “Eulene, Age 12, Curses the State Fair,” we find her in the “last few weeks of childhood / when progesterone was rampant,” caught between conflicting desires: “It was the body, / of course, saying “Up, down, in, out . . . / A sexual thing, but look at me as a whole!” How does she succeed? “Eulene: no child by then, and already / everybody’s fool.” In India, among the Hare Krishnas, Eulene finds herself lamenting the turning-back of the clock to the age of the Vedas: “So much for Germaine and Gloria and Title IX. / So much for Rosie the Riveter and the Hite Report.” The final poem, “Eulene Declares,” modulates from its opening couplet—“I am not a woman / I am a force of nature” to its closing couplet—“I am not a force of nature / I am a woman”—shedding on the way a host of social incrustations.

Much of the pleasure in Mania Klepto derives from wandering into her space where discourses collide, allusions point every which way, and gloves-off punning sends us skidding across language’s thin ice: “Poor, forked fool, Eulene / persisting in her folly as if wisdom / will trickle down some day like rain / or a supply-side theory into her brain.” At times the language in its excess follows Eulene over the top, thumb to nose all the way. But as the story goes, it’s what Eulene has (other than another “layer / of Tuff-Kote on her soul”) to negotiate the collisions of inner and outer contingency. Eulene flouts good taste and good judgment, and in recompense for her recklessness she suffers and sometimes triumphs as a hapless Keaton (Buster, of course, though she’d fancy herself Diane). Eulene, we must be willing to admit, is silly, like us, and often Wright makes us feel, behind the clowning, the insecurity, the sheer precariousness of getting along. Eulene’s a fast changer, but the world is faster. 

Otto Rank, in his study of the double, argues that our primitive ancestors solved the problem of death by creating a being that would live forever. As Wright notes in the essay “Disquieting Muse,” this is Eulene’s aspiration or Wright’s for her:

If either of us is to be a casualty of the downsized, outsourced, post-industrial, post-employment, health benefits-free, simultaneously globalized and balkanized, leaner and meaner Brave New Sweatshop, it will certainly not be Eulene. Her world-consternating exploits threaten to run beyond book-length, and there is no end in sight.

It’s a world tailor-made for Eulene’s protean nihilism. But who can imagine Eulene with a tailor? And who needs a tailor to go laugh at a funeral?

Robert McNamara has published two collections of poetry. He teaches at the University of Washington.

Mania Klepto: The Book of Eulene
Carolyne Wright
Turning Point Books, 2011
$19.00 paperback, ISBN: 9781936370412
92 pages