15 July 2014

Review: Body on the Wall by Michelle Wing





 









Zara Raab

Review of Body on the Wall
Michelle Wing

Hilo, Hawai'i: Saddle Road Press, 2014
Paper, 103 pages
ISBN: 980991395200


"Body on the Wall," the title poem, appears in the potent second section (called "Fire") of this four-part book, each part named for one of the elements. "Body on the Wall" gives readers a strong taste of violence in an intimate relationship. The narrator's partner has taken an anger management class, and has the certificate to prove it, but the poet knows only too well he––

can con anyone:
Police. Lawyers. Landlords. Me.

It is my body on the wall, bruised and battered
and nobody, nobody, can say they don't see

Undone, she takes the anger management certificate, smears her own blood on it and tacks it to her black dress, the one she has shredded with a blade to tell what he was like, so nobody can say they don't see. In "Refocus," Wing, who is known in the non-literary world for her work with victims of domestic violence, writes as a compassionate observer:  A woman comes into a women's shelter, her "face purpled with blows," but though she has been here before, she refuses to press charges or leave her abuser. Even those who succeed in escaping, Wing implies, may be haunted the rest of their lives. The life of a woman who has left her abuser and moved on is tellingly recorded in "Even a Woman":

[. . .] I was in hiding
one of the disappeared
new town

unlisted phone number, quit the job
I used to have cause I could not afford
to leave a trace. I had shrunk again
into that victim role, the one abandoned 

so long ago.

As a feminist claiming her power, Wing is sensitive to the power dynamics at play among women, too. Having "learned love translated through the words of men," having had her "debut" as a lover with men, Wing is aware that with her lesbian lover she is now "the one who holds /  the one who touches"  ("Body of a Woman, Cuerpo de Mujer").

Trauma and concerns with abuse tend to have origins in early family life, and it is not surprising, perhaps, that Wing chooses to focus attention on her upper middle class background. Her devoted, philanthropic family was "perfect"--except of course when it wasn't. Her mother, a super mom who adopted orphans from other cultures, often flew into uncontrollable rages. The Vietnamese child of war from the 1970s who became a part of this family appears movingly in Wing's poems. More unsettling, are memories of a childhood molestation that ends with a suicide attempt ("Breathing"). 

Wing's work is strongest in this dark mode. She is a poet of advocacy for the downtrodden, the grieving. In the poem "Anthropomorphism," Wing is unswayed by political or social correctness, and follows her own instincts. Why not by anthropomorphic, she asks, when you see a doe seeming to grieve over the body of her spotted fawn?

When she turns to praise in the section called “Wind," the poet seems at times to lose her ground. In "How to Free a Poem" Wing writes, "winnow some words, toss them in the air," but sometimes becomes a bit too buoyant for my taste, as in her ode to the French philosopher-novelist-poet Helene Cixous: "I hunger for her / I want to lick each word / put my tongue on the nouns / take the nipple of her poetry between my teeth /and bite." 

This is not to say Wing's work lacks humor. That she can succeed in a lighter vein is evident in "Ode to a Laundry Basket":

And there you were,
a classic, a Penelope, graceful
in your woven seagrass over a steel frame.
With allure enough to attract
a thousand lovers,
yet the steadfastness to wait
for the one who is coming home. 


Zara Raab is a poet and literary journalist who work appears widely in small magazines. She is the author of four books, including Swimming the Eel and Rumpelstiltskin, finalist for the Dana Award. She is a contributing editor to The Redwood Coast Review. Visit her at www.zararaab.com

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