Anna Journey’s second book takes its name from an exhibit at L.A.’s Museum of Jurassic Technology called “Vulgar Remedies: Belief, Knowledge and Hypersymbolic Cognition.” The exhibit comprises folk cures and rituals predating modern medicine; the poetry collection features hypnotic fabulations on memory, fauna, and the body. At times tender and anecdotal, others grotesque and nightmarish, Vulgar Remedies explores the boundaries that divide—or fail to divide—the past from the present, the dead from the living, and the self from the object of its love. If these poems are remedies, they treat symptoms of heartbreak, pubescence, and the vertiginous business of being embodied.
Like Macbeth meeting Banquo’s phantom over dinner, Journey confronts her ghosts in unexpected places: in a blanket, a hummingbird, a streamer of red seaweed. But her world is far from grim; wrought with dazzling chimerical characters and an intense awareness of the body—its maturation and decay, orgasm and metabolism—her language is bold and bewitchingly erotic. In her bovine ode, “When I Reached into the Stomach of a Fistulated Dairy Cow: Sixth Grade Field Trip to Sonny’s Dairy Barn” (the kind of long, expositional title she prefers), she writes:
I feel a whole
bitten pasture as it broke
down inside her—blue barn
sweet with the atomic
shudder of barley.
There is so much going on here: the synecdochical substitution of “whole… pasture” for a stomach’s worth of grass; the double gaze outward (to the barn) and inward (to the atom); the translation from tactile to gustatory experience; the literal and figurative muddling of the boundaries between bodies. The rhythm of the language is nearly as regular as the peristalsis it describes, so that we read these sophisticated lines with ease. Journey’s imagination—liberated, libidinal, and rich with Proustian association—transcends the bounds of skin and subjectivity. The eleven-year-old poet tries on the persona of the cow, thereby fabulating a new, hybrid identity.
The conception of ulterior and often preternatural personae is one of the hallmarks of a Journey poem. Though a fierce, tonally consistent female voice carries through the length of the book, this narrator is also a raconteur who dreams herself into the bodies and interiorities of those around her. Neither the persona poems of Norman Dubie nor the Transformations of Anne Sexton, these poems manage to dramatize the act of poetic personification without compromising the constancy and personality of their narrator.
Thus, Vulgar Remedies stars a menagerie of characters who double as spectral iterations of the speaker, and figures from her past occasion deep meditations on her own materiality and memory. Take for example an excerpt from “Elegy Where I Initially Refuse to Eat Sand:”
…Like the letter my newly dead
uncle must now sit down to write
since his heart attack slumped him
in the sand near his yellow
house on stilts. He died digging
to heal his hurricane-
split sewer line. I was willing
to forgive his last words to me—
two weeks before—as we swam
through the lukewarm gulf: Where’d you get
those boobs? he laughed through
his backstroke. He wore red
seaweed over his bald spot. He refused
dentures, drawled with a lisp that hinted
at what was missing. I was
willing to forgive his last words
because I coughed up a salt wind,
because I hummed, Way,
hey, blow the man down! as I kicked the dark
glass: a Budweiser’s end. By then the bottle’s note
had vanished, or got soaked clear through. By
then I knew Where’d you get
those boobs, meant how violently childhood
bites its mirage into the waves, or I painted
the beach house yellow after
your favorite storybook bird.
Journey’s sense of irony, by turns hilarious and tragic, features prominently here. Her uncle’s unsentimental goodbye (which recurs a third time in “The Devil’s Apron”) becomes the mantra of the bereft adolescent: “Where’d you get those boobs?” Moreover, this phrase suggests the physical substitution of the breasts for the uncle: one body budding as the other decays “like a grilled sweet onion with one side / charred from a fire.” Again, Journey seems to assert that the confines of the body are less static and hermetic than fluid and correlative—constantly adapting to the erotic call of their surroundings.
Journey’s characters recur unpredictably throughout the book, making them all the more portentous. A childhood cat appears in four poems, portrayed variously as a kitten, a couch companion, a bathtub stowaway, a “tuft of grey fur in the brass urn / on the mantle.” The speaker’s mother wanders these pages, conjured often by a mention of coffee or cats. Images of deer repeat in altered forms like Eadweard Muybridge photos: a roadkill buck whose throat the poet slits; white-tails feeding at a neighbor’s garden; a mounted moose head in a barbecue joint. In “Mercy,” a hunter “wakes to the dull warmth / of limbs kicking the sheets, to the scream / of a deer becoming a woman,” and later, Journey describes her childhood as hoofed.
Why the strange, echoic recurrences? Why the conflation of the body with what it has seen? Perhaps because everything the poet witnesses becomes an element of personal apocrypha—and as such, a part of her spiritual and corporeal self-conception. Perhaps because Journey is an expert at seeing and performing the resonances between self and other, and between remembered and immanent experience. She convincingly rearranges time and space into her own associative patterns, just as she rearranges the English language into her own virtuosic idiom.
Like the exhibit from which Vulgar Remedies takes its name, this incantatory collection curates a space where past concurs with present, and where the narratives of the living and the dead braid in a single continuous insight. “The past needs somewhere to go,” reads the epigraph to “Wool Blanket Covered in Nipples,” taken from Beckian Fritz-Goldberg. Journey puts the past in these pages, not suffused in the gauzy veils of memory but sharpened to its most vivid, most torqued and graphic. In so doing, she makes the past the present. She makes it forever.
Maggie Millner is a poet living in Monterey, CA. Her work has appeared in Third Coast, PANK, Phoebe, Stone Canoe, and elsewhere.
Louisiana State University Press, August 2013
$17.95 paperback, ISBN: 9780807152195