Monday, February 23, 2009

Book Review: The Memory Palace by JoSelle Vanderhooft

JoSelle Vanderhooft is the critically acclaimed author of poetry collections The Minotaur's Last Letter To His Mother (Ash Phoenix), the 2007 Stoker Award-nominated Ossuary (Sam's Dot Publishing), Desert Songs (Cross-Cultural Communications, forthcoming), The Handless Maiden and Other Tales Twice Told (Sam's Dot Publishing, 2008), Fathers, Daughters, Ghosts And Monsters (VanZeno Press, forthcoming) and Death Masks (Papaveria Press, 2009), the novels The Tale Of The Miller's Daughter (Papaveria Press) and Owl Skin (Papaveria Press, forthcoming) and Ugly Things, a collection of short stories from Drollerie Press to be released in 2009. She is currently at work on a series of novels for Drollerie press as well. Her poetry and fiction has appeared online and in print in a number of publications, including Cabinet des Fees, Star*Line, Mythic Delirium, MYTHIC, Jabberwocky, Helix, The Seventh Quarry and several others. An assistant editor of a gay and lesbian newspaper by day, she lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Vanderhooft's most recent poetry collection is The Memory Palace (A Poetry Memoir) which is available on Norilana Books as part of its Curiosities imprint. As the title indicates, this book is a series of poems through Vanderhooft's memories, pulling the reader through the experience of growing up gay. This is a dense book, in terms of emotion, and one that takes time to ingest. The poems are powerful, raw and at times, even scary. The feelings and images are layered and compacted, and the reader often feels helpless before them. However, this seeming chaos is expertly controlled by Vanderhooft allowing the reader to experience young adulthood. Emotionally, this is not an easy book to read; however, Vanderhooft is able to craft her poems through that emotion so that the reader is carried along for the ride.

The book begins with the section "Foundations," which explores adolescence and young adulthood through the eyes of a young girl beginning to acknowledge her desires, a non-Mormon moved to Utah, a young woman dealing with oppression, and a daughter dealing with a tumultuous family. These poems are at times innocent, confessional and downright terrifying. For example, "Blankets" uses the imagery of grandparent's afghans to create a bubble of safety for explorations into sexuality:

"It’s that awkward-gooeyness that feels
both wrong and right,
that makes my heart slow down
even as my breath speeds up.

Deep down, I understand it.
Deeper still, I know I probably don’t want to.
Instead I want to pin this moment
like wings in amber,
a monarch butterfly frozen in its footstep.

Let the world ramble on as it will.
I will transform into a patchwork blanket,
at once a shield and a mnemonic killing jar
in this perfect bubble of morning."

However, poems like "My Father's House" are much more foreboding. It begins "Your house is hungry, Father./At night I hear its old bones/shift beneath me like Leviathan/breathing out a nightmare." and proceeds through the experience of young girl, scared at night, dealing with a non-responsive father who calls her "a fucking baby/for looking into shadows/to see bones." The house, with her father and his new wife, almost consumes the young girl in this piece, swallowing the reader as well.

Poems like "You Know Who You Are" are even more terrifying, documenting the cruelties that children commit against each other and way adults refuse to act against such acts:

"I have been told I must get over it,
the glee with which two pre-pubescent boys
bruised my breasts in an open classroom.
I must let it go, they say,
because it happened back in 1988
and at least I wasn’t raped.
Yet every time I saw one of them prowl
through the corridors, seventh grade to senior year,
the rope coiled in my belly
jerked me into the girls’ room to hurl.
Back then his mother forced him to say sorry."

The next section of the book, "Walls," carries the reader through high school--an anti-religious father, his suicide, the awkwardness of being in love, and the pain of losing love.

Poems like "Break Up" capture the loss eloquently:

"It’s like I have been shot in the same place.
This time the wound spreads across a summer,
my guts twist like shedding serpents
and someone I don’t know
lives in my body."

Poems like "Inquisition" bring up the confusion and terror of a daughter caught in her father's anti-Catholic tirade:

"When I think it’s peace time, that we can
discuss his brass model trains,
the tedium of seventh grade made worse
for gropes and death threats I’m scared to confess
he’ll give the screws a turn:
“You attend a church that financed the Crusades!”
I wonder why he brings this bogey up.
I’ve read the books, I’m smart enough to know
Father Sebastian will not exhort
the torching of the synagogues tomorrow.
But he persists until I nearly drop the phone.
Later, I wonder, if the tears he drew
were some proof of heresy."

Readers are swept up in this flurry of emotions, caught themselves in place of memory, reliving the joys and horrors of high school. Vanderhooft does not let go of her own story, however, and allows readers into the questions confronting a young woman who must constantly confront the demon of her dead father:

"I wonder, through the rain, what he would have said.
Would he have liked my speech,
or would he have shaken his head
condemning it and more accomplishments
as so much trash?"

However, Vanderhooft does not drown her audience completely. Despite suicide, cruelty, questions of sexuality, battles with mental disorders, poems like "Quo Vadis" take the reader through the turmoil, and offer brief slivers of hope:

"His voice is rose petal-soft as he lays out
three things, each round and real as rosary beads:
you’re welcome here, don’t leave us;
God would not try to break you on the world;
finally, as gently as he can
the teachings of the Catholic Church.
I hear the words disorder and desire
flail, mouth open, airless, but he stops,
strings them out like beads upon a chain
in sentences I can close my hand around.
Not as God intended, but not sin.
yet if I am to take a female partner,
few priests will put me to the Inquisition,
no crowbars raised to pry apart my skull
no eyes to stare into that well of conscience
where God echoes like water."

The third section, "Windows," continues that hopefulness. However, even this hope and recovery are painful, as explored in "To Forgive":

"Forgiveness is not generous.
It is not something granted by the proud,
not something given freely as a kiss.
Instead, it is an act of desperation,
the final rallying of sour passion
before bones collapse on their own weariness.
This is why I nod at his announcement
blood biting through the pucker of my lip
as I let it go."

Even more painful is the isolation one feels in the poem "Via Cruces," in which Vanderhooft comes to terms with her sexuality and contradictory teachings of the Catholic church:

"I ask every priest I know for their advice.
One of them, a stone-faced Latvian
tells me God did not make girls for girls,
and he once drove out a demon from a house
where two women embraced.
I leave, of course, in tears.

My friend Stephen calls it spiritual rape.
My mother says she never should have brought me
to the church that hurt her in her youth.
As for me, I feel I have been skinned."

However, this poem signals a change towards revelation and acceptance, providing the reader with a much needed breath in the journey through pain and anxiety:

"Today it is Good Friday,
the final Stations of the Cross for Lent.
I have processed around the church,
prayed before each icon and remembered
every sacrifice we make in love.
The censer’s smoke curls up to the rooftops
bearing with it my uncertainty
and, for a time, my fear."

The narrator continues through these moments of acceptance, acknowledging people from her past, and learning to grow beyond the injuries she has endured in her life. For example, in the poem "Flesh and Spirit," Vanderhooft explores her body, and learns to accept what she finds there:

"Arms I have just found encircle me
soft as petals, hard as diamonds at their core
to protect me from the world that peers through the blinds
fanged and hungry,
always on alert."

In the final section, "Rooftops," Vanderhooft fully acknowledges herself to herself and her readers in the revitalizing and honest "Apologia":

"Being Catholic and bisexual isn’t always easy.
Sometimes Catholics think that you’re a threat
to Mother Church, to mental health, to marriage.
After all, aren’t we criticized enough
for Purgatory and praying to the saints?
Better just to speak of them in whispers,
half-lidded eyes dividing them like grain.
Unless, of course, they make a point of it
leaving us no choice.

Sometimes bisexuals think that you’re a traitor,
to gay rights, to equality, to self-esteem.
After all, aren’t we criticized enough
for not making up our minds and being greedy?
Better just to speak of them in whispers,
half-lidded eyes dividing them like grain.
Unless, of course, they make a point of it
leaving us no choice.

I guess it’s nice when they agree on something.

I am not an ideal Catholic,
not the kind who should be introduced
to impressionable children and RCIA candidates.
I’m not even a good Catholic.
I swear like a parrot, pray like a thief,
miss church without a reason
good or otherwise.
I am not proud of it.

I am not an ideal bisexual,
not the kind who should be introduced
to skeptical gay leaders and nervous politicians.
I’m not even a good bisexual.
I hide like a turtle, scatter like a beetle,
call myself a lesbian to avoid
a confrontation.
I’m not proud of that, either.

Neither am I happy with that greasy tightrope
between the opposition of our lives:
bisexual and Catholic,
sick and well,
happy and unhappy,
dead and alive.
If it were up to me, I’d tear it down,
let us free-fall and flail in contradiction for awhile,
too scared, too hopeful to search for the net,
maybe not wanting one."

Vanderhooft also revisits many of the previous poems, illuminating them with this renewed spirit. "Graveside" places the narrator at the grave of the father:

"Five years until I can stand beside the headstone
without disrespect—my tennis shoe
grinding the dash that abbreviates his life,
or indifference—my unlined hands
slapping down poinsettias for his birthday,
sunflowers for the birthday he made up.
Perhaps because I simply lacked the language:
I failed out of the Latin program twice in college
unable to conjugate the dead back into life.
More than that, he never taught me Dutch,
the guttural infinitives he conjured into screams
as the Allies’ bombs devoured Market Garden.
So, I had no words but my poor English
to throw at his present absence,
brittle, bastard English words like “you” and “I”
“how” and “why” and “when” and “fuck, fuck, fuck.”
finally, just “Father,” “Daddy,” “Abba,” “Papa,”
The word that breaks most often on my lips
ricocheting through me like a bullet,
the word that splits me wider than a canyon
and drains all language finally from my eyes."

The Memory Palace is a frighteningly honest look at one young woman's religious, sexual and personal journey from adolescence to adulthood. It is a raw journey, and one that will thoroughly consume any reader who does not take it cautiously. JoSelle Vanderhooft carries her readers through the nightmares and scars, but also carries them back into the light, nearly out of breath but all the better for the ride.


Anonymous said...

This is a thorough review. According to my review copy, though, the title should be The Memory Palace, not "Place." My review is here:

pottygok said...

Yup. You're right. Editing now. Thanks for the catch.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau