Mysterious Acts by My People
a review by Claire Wahmanholm
Valerie Wetlaufer
Sibling Rivalry Press 2014
87 pages

The title of Valerie Wetlaufer’s poetry collection promises something magical—a chronicle of gestures and performances that coalesces into a mythos, a creation myth. Here, the body is the point of origin from which the book radiates, and its arcana, written in tattoos, bruises, and scars, are the collection’s central mysteries. What is the language of the body? How can we read it? How is the body acted upon, and how does it act? How do bodies love and hurt each other? How do they endure?

Though the book traces these questions, it does not fasten them down. These are not mysteries to be cracked or unraveled—they are mysteries to lose yourself in and return to. The world of these poems is double-edged, hazardous. The book opens with “Solitary Vice,” in which the speaker “loved a girl/ when I was a girl,// before I knew desire/ could be used against me.” This is a book of scant safety, where almost everything has the potential to harm, where mere existence is a danger and the body’s language is ambiguous. A bruise, for example, can be an erotic marker, as in “Tender :: Throb,” where the lover “lowers her lips & leaves a bruise.” But elsewhere, as in “Telling True,” the bruise attests to unspeakable violence: “Nineteen when he forced me—/ marked his hand’s print on my skin./ I tried to peel the purple bruises away; so much stuck beneath my nails./ The red water wouldn’t stop coming.”

Though the speaker of “More Evidence for the Dinosaur/Bird Link” begs her lover to “make me a nest of your body,/ a safe place to roost,” the body cannot be counted on. Yes, it can be a site of solace; in “Love Poem in Three Parts” the speaker describes her lover “dip[ping] your face/ into me like a kitten drinking milk, your whole face/disappearing into the shallow bowl.” But it can also be a site of betrayal. The bodies in this collection are vulnerable, impermanent. Though the figures in these poems carve and scrawl their names on the world’s surfaces, the threat of erasure is never far off, something the speaker of “Foundering” knows: “Here I scratch my story in dirt on the walls; eventually they sweep me away.”

This is a deeply elegiac book. Illness, madness, miscarriage, and death lurk beneath the surface of almost every poem. In “Anger Endures,” the speaker addresses a dead friend: “Your name was magic,/ juju your mother concocted to protect you […] You swathed yourself in orange, made/ mammoth salads for health & assembled/ bouquets for beauty. Everything a spell.” But even spells fail. There are limits on the kinds of magic language can perform.

Small wonder, then, that often “we are// afraid of the future,” that time is regarded warily and speakers are forced to question their own fates. “What will happen when I leave?” one wonders in “The Canyon.” Will the animals continue on without me? Will the rain?” In “The seasons are easy to distinguish,” the speaker laments “this continual fall & thrum;/ the inability to hold particles together,/ to contain what we are trying to construct.” These disappearing acts are one of the central mysteries of the book. What does it mean to be a survivor, to be left behind? How do we handle survivorship?

We can, of course, renounce it. Several poems yearn for the beyond-human, for an alternative subjectivity. Speakers “want to be bird-boned/ evolve into flight.” They dream “of the woods/ where badgers would tend to me & I’d curl,/ a little bald thing, between brothers & sisters.”

Or we can forsake the body entirely, leaving the community of the living for that of the dead. In “Exoskeleton,” the speaker addresses a friend lost to suicide: “you wanted to get to the other side,/ but couldn’t see a way. Now the wall seems high—/ I tried to scale it twice// since hearing you’d traveled over”; and in the harrowing “Tornado Alley”: “I stopped wearing anything but black/ Tried/ to die/ It would’ve been the 33rd/ gay suicide that year.” We can, as the speaker of “Johnny’s Diary” suggests, “[not] fear/ the coming down” and “just fall softly.”

But we can also endure. “Benediction” offers a list of resolutions: “This year: more verbs, more letters, less illness./ Travel: landscapes of red rock rising from the road,/ salt water. Clean air. No humidity.// My only pains, champagnes./ The only monsters the ones I invited in.” In the poem’s final lines, the dread of the future is transformed into resolve: “I used to wear a black sweater every day./ This year I will wear a green one.”

Though the speaker in “Tornado Alley” says “I stayed down when they pushed/ me down/ I stayed on the bottom,” the book doesn’t give in or stay down. Its second section finds ferocious strength in the late-19th century figure of Mary Sweeney, the “Wisconsin window-smasher,” who was held in (and escaped from) over one-hundred prisons for destroying the windows of stores and train stations. In “The Window-Smasher Speaks,” she describes herself as “one drawn to shards,/ the pieces of things left behind/ when something larger breaks.” But her destruction is for a greater purpose, for “where there is waste, growth will be forged.”

The speakers in the book’s other two sections are heirs to Sweeney’s recuperative destruction, to her aesthetics of shatter. These are not gentle poems—neither with us nor with their subject matter. Reading this collection is like picking your way, barefoot, across a floor of broken glass. Like shards, these poems are testaments to damage. But through damage, they have ceased to be vulnerable and have turned dangerous. They cut, and they cut deep. Wetlaufer has a gift for the short, powerful utterance, as in the opening stanza from “July”:

This is no season for harvest.
Nothing blooms.
Babies don’t germinate in your womb.
I practice calisthenics.
You trim fat from the meat.

Or in the final lines of “One Day I Laid Down the Bruise of You”:

Once I sat alone in a velvet theater.
I imagined you inside me.
That was enough.

Tiny fist curled, like a bird:
wings beating in the nest.

A pocketful of feathers.

Most accidents happen close to home.

These rhythms lodge inside you. In “Anatomy,” the speaker writes poems to her beloved with the same rigor and care, the same keenness and attention to craft that characterizes Wetlaufter’s work throughout this collection:

My best lines to you are composed on vellum, the skin of a stillborn lamb.
I scrape the hide clean,
remove the hairs & rub it smooth with pumice.
Then washed, dressed with chalk & finished
with a lime bath. This parchment is known
for the absence of imperfection.

Parchment—and poetry—can be perfect where the hand is flawed, can be whole where the body is wounded. This is another mystery that Wetlaufer leaves us with—perhaps the mystery that the book has been circling all along. Though we are inhabited by blight, poetry like this can still swing us toward something like deliverance, like escape, like, in the final words of “Anatomy,” “hollow bones & flight.”

author pic 2 Claire Wahmanholm’s work most recently appears in or is forthcoming from BODY, Verse Daily, The Cincinnati Review, American Arts Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, 32 Poems, Measure, and Rattle. She lives in Salt Lake City.