Guest Reviewer Mehera Dennison
Call upon me if you need
contact with that breezy,
self-conscious type of turmoil
that chases itself all day,
forming little whirlwinds.
- "Her Account of Herself"
Amy Gerstler's sixth book, Crown of Weeds, is a collection of 41 undivided poems dedicated to her brother whom, we learn at the end of the book, had a brain tumor. Retrospectively, the first title, "Recipe for Resurrection," then becomes the first in a series of chants or spells for life. The poem, like a few others interspersed through the book, contains directions, in a magic realism-type way, for immortality.
Although the voice is overall whimsical, Gerstler confronts real issues. Given the title, an allusion to Christ is not unexpected, but she tells the reader (implicitly a witch now, performing this "recipe") to [ Click to Order Gerstler's Crown of Weeds (soft $) ]
[r]esist the temptation
to fall to your knees
and beg his forgiveness. Instead
armed with pinches and kisses,
fistfuls of pumpkin seeds<
and biscuit crumbs, let him
be breathed on by the subtle
dusty gusts from a lily's
Graciously welcome the truant
soul home as you stutter your love--
the thin tuneless exhaust
we exhale every day.
Understandably in this modern age, Gerstler shares Greger's sense of irony about religion, but rather than explain (narratively) as Greger did that the Catholic God in Santa Maria Maggiore was "the wrong god to ask forgiveness of," Gerstler creates her own eclectic "religion," of which she seems the sole and capable prophet (Greger, "Much Too Late").
Far from tuneless, the mostly stichic first-person poems want to act as guidance, to explain in a light-hearted or humorous manner, how to maneuver through this world of fruit (there are almost as many pears as there was dust in Greger's book; both books, interestingly, contain quite a few of those dream-inspiring poppies), sex, and death. In the second poem, Gerstler reveals a bit about her persona through an address "To a Newborn": "I liked you enormously, due / to my affinity for anyone / pissed off, particularly / infants" (a quick switching of diction characterizes most of the work--we find "bliss-tinged" a few pages away from "dunderheads"--and it rarely gets away from her control). Later in the poem she addresses the "Protector of all beings, . . . Voracious deity," to request its assistance in guarding/guiding this baby. She beseeches,
Do this at the most
humble request of one so terrified
(o, trailblazer, lord of conflicting
emotions, teacher of naked ascetics,
traveler ever arriving),
that the list of fears would
weary to death anyone reading this
sentence, were she to mention them
Having convinced us in the book's second poem that she is human (despite her magical gift for sound-play), Gerstler is free to dazzle us with her instructions about how to manage life in a difficult world. And she often achieves this by making us laugh. The poem "Mixed Messages" begins "Hi. I sketch dead fish for a living." (Even the possible pop culture invasion of a glistening white Dodge neon smiling above the word "Hi" in advertisement, while not directly invoked, does not hurt one's experience of the poem). In "Song," she makes her readers her friends, remaining reassuringly prophet-like and even rhyming a bit:
I don't have to explain myself.
You understand, my readers, my dears:
man with a green thumb who's all ears,
girl locked in a closet for years,
elephant attendant, Russian hospice nurse,
picture bride married off
not for better but for worse. . .
. . . The day will finally
arrive when we know whose grip
we're in, who owns the explosives.
But we can't make that day come.
We must wait for it.
While not impossible to read a book lately without some overt political statement, Gerstler's tripping, capricious vignettes and orations do not seem capable of supporting a straightforward agenda. They are clearly feminist and aware of current [academic] issues. In "Her Account of Herself," she reveals that she "kept her legs crossed / just as instructed, for a hideously long time," and that her grandmother "never wanted to marry, / but got pregnant, and that / was that." But her poem "Jews" is frightening because it takes a highly charged word and reflects an anti-male cosmology (odd because the book is dedicated to her brother and especially because one must assume she is Jewish--otherwise the sentiment is absolutely anti-Semitic. . . which of course it may be anyway). The poem begins: "What does a Jew want?' Some of the answers are: "Not to be tempted into limping / after that Christ guy, seeking / a pat on the head, restitution, / some stupid excuse or a belated / invitation to dinner"; "[t]o grant / a sexual exception every time / he meets another sad-eyed woman . . . and to sleep with her / immediately." The female form is a "mournful universe" to him. "His wife's virtues [are] shrill in his ears / like violin strings." Gerstler claims he asks himself, "Is that a trickle of blood / on her thigh? Alas, one / cannot have everything." Surely not every Jew expects to cheat on his wife (since not every Jew has, or wants, one), and not every Jew expects a woman to be a virgin. This is, of course, not the first time the Jewish religion's misogyny has been discussed in poetry;1 but it seems risky to question/define Jewishness with such a clearly negative and pathetic figure.
When she becomes more directly narrative about real historical events, the poems seem weaker (and I'm sure I'm revealing my own bias). "Blur" has some beautiful moments, but feels clunky overall: "I'm listening to the radio in the kitchen, crying, because the pope just declared / women still can't be priests." She explains that, although not Catholic, she sometimes feels Catholic, and asks, "Doesn't the pope know / the blur around the body, that constant / living light, is women's truest garment, / was St. Joan's most invincible layer / of armor?" She concludes:
Poor pope, blind to women's
spiritual gifts. All we females can do
is gaze into the star-flecked sky,
and reading what's written there,
dry our eyes.
My prophet has failed me, in this poem. She's a bit too sentimental, and, worse, she's counter to my sentiment--"we females" can do more than dry our eyes.
But the book is a process of drying her eyes, we learn at the end. The last three poems seem directly written to her brother (especially the one entitled "To My Brother"), and they veer towards too much sentiment: in "Miasma" she writes, "I cannot say how much I admire you, / who purified himself at a moment's notice, / though I contend you were squeaky clean / at the start"--returning us, perhaps, to the second poem in the book, to that newborn. The final poem, "Colorlessness," is a meditation on death and fear. She wonders if some last meaning will burst from the dying, a resurrection of sorts, "to scare the pants off both atheists / and verse mongers." The poem, remarking how we-the-living will be "robbed of the rich / ripe browns of feces" upon death (strangely Elizabeth Bishop-like), may want to try too hard to scare us verse mongers (if we readers are here thusly addressed, in contrast to the sweet dear readers we were before). But the last lines of the book, addressed at once to the reader (as we are always to some extent the "you"), her brother, and some type of god, are a hopeful affirmation from our prophet:
the pervasive gray of disgrace, the purple
of complaint, despite your alternating caresses
and attempts to shrug me off, I swear
by the reek of the dung heap, but the slip
and slide of white silk, by the feelings
you stupidly unleashed in me, I will never
lose you completely in the gathering tide
of colorlessness, due to love's stubborn tint.