My Life as a Doll by Elizabeth Kirschner
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 2008)
Elizabeth Kirschner's My Life as Doll is one of the most searing poetry reads I've experienced in recent memory. How could it not be, when the first page presents
When I was four
years old, my mother pummeled
the back of my head with a baseball bat.
that continues on to
I remember the pain. I remember
hitting the floor like a scarecrow
that was a heap of broken straw.
This is why I love the winter garden so:
energy of enigma. Icy blossoms.
Yes, My Life as Doll reflects the effects of childhood abuse throughout the persona's life. But it's also that leap from a brutal battering to the significance of the winter garden that paradoxically shows how the persona doesn't ultimately get buried by the abusive experience. Despite the bludgeonings described on many -- oh so many! -- pages of the book, the lyrical -- often gorgeous -- lines offer the impression that the abused did not remain a victim.
It's a paradox that's either poetically masterful or not believable. Because the book doesn't contain redemption -- doesn't have a happy ending --
Damage is done when love is undone
and I'm a bouquet of burnt matches,
an ashen petal fallen from a loony-
tunes moon. Stomp, smudge, chalk
me into cinders and I will rise like
a genie out of a bottle of destitute dreams.
My scent is offal, seared grass
and dirt drenched with the blood of
the war dead. Why must there be
warring between heaven and earth,
dead Mother and me? The kiss of peace
has been smeared into blear
and white doves have bloodied their feathers
in hell's red bile of dew. I can be scraped
from the bottom of God's shoe, my scars
are pregnant with pain and I am a bloody stew.
Dressed in mole's clothes, I dig
past my open grave with raggedy paws
till I'm blinded with blinding light
that scorches the blackened wick
of my blackened soul, my masterpiece.
So the point of unease here is how the poet can so elegantly create such a wondrous poem without at all conceding any relief from the childhood battering. The book contains four parts, moving from childhood to adulthood, including the mother's death. Throughout, one isn't moved to consider the often beautiful lines in the poems as results that justify their sources.
Yet it's also this unrelentingness capped by a refusal for a Hollywood ending that makes this collection so powerful. The consistent difficulty and yet persistent lyricism combine for an impressive result for which the poet deserves, yes, no less than heaven -- even if it must be the type of non-paradise here:
While boys milked my breasts until
they were empty, I longed to be donned
in a habit. I wanted to float down cloistered
corridors like a black butterfly whose scales
were relics stolen from Mary. I wanted to marry
a martyr, I wanted to be a saint, but
my lips were rubbed raw by too many kisses
from boys who took and took -- suffering would be
my salvation, my one way ticket to a heaven
full of copulating angels -- they loved a good fuck
and I dreamed of dreaming in their lascivious arms.
There I would get pregnant with a baby angel
and I would mother her tenderly while my own mother
lay drunk on the sofa, smoking a cigarette
like a tiny flare that signaled her heartbeat.
Soon, soon I would be a centerfold saint
she would kneel before praying a prayer that sounded
like curses -- o glory be the day I condemned her
to the hell she belonged in -- it was a zoo,
it had a cage and I had the key.
P.S. This book also made me go in search of the poet's earlier books. That effect, by itself, is a testament to its power, uncomfortable though the experience of it was.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects as she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed by Zvi A. Sesling in Boston Area Poetry Scene; by Michael Leong in Big Other; by Alan Baker in Litter; and by rob mclennan. Stephen Hong Sohn also reviews SILK EGG along with two other books, NOTA BENE EISWEIN and FOOTNOTES TO ALGEBRA: Uncollected Poems 1995-2009 at Asian American Lit Fans.