Book Review

Anna Journey’s poems are bravura acts of sometimes goofy joy framed by a sense of mortality, the legacy of the Covid years, and also an acute physical awareness that the bodies we inhabit will betray us. The body is oddly imaged in the book’s first poem, “The Judas Ear,” a fairly literal retelling of stir-fry dinner prep at which the cook turns a laser eye on a curious mushroom. Ear-shaped, “its canal tipped down as if listening for gossip, / a far-off cough, Its flesh: // henna-colored, peach, or taupe.” Rapid subject shifting that typifies her poems in this book moves to a sense-memory of a communion wafer on her tongue. Having discovered the fungus is named for the betrayer Judas, she asks, sitting down to dinner with her husband, “who would betray / whom after the first bite.”

Although following poems are rowdier in subject matter, they almost always reference mortality. Poems set in Richmond, Virginia twenty years ago detail student life in comic deadpan. Not the Richmond of torn-down confederate monuments, energetic student focus is on the feckless feel of their lives. They drink, do recreational drugs, develop crushes on teachers, thrift shop, have sex. In one poem about donating her eggs to make $3000, a means of quitting a waitressing job, the writer is advised to ingest “Gatorade / and rare beef every day for a week / post-retrieval. The bloodier // the better.” Bloody-mindedness about her theme and subject makes some poems feel slyly sensational, yet the body’s fragility is always conveyed. The expression of actual pain in poems makes mortality concrete. In “Flatback” the writer is never unaware that the body ultimately betrays, citing the curse of her perfect posture, “as if gravel had nerves.”

Ample detail also makes physical what is abstract and essential. The allure of the void, for example, is rejected in “I Donate to the Fundraising Campaign for the NASA-Designed Fragrance Eau de Space.” Described as having the odor of “seared steak, raspberries, gunpowder, and rum,” which the writer calls “brimstone,” the void that space represents is diminished when reduced to familiar items in a list. Only the particular can calm threatening abstraction. The poem “Radial Thoughts on the Surface Tension of Holes” offers Journey a kindred ars poetica. The British land art sculptor Andy Goldsworthy creates a piece where autumn leaves wreathe a dark hole.

Such work looks “through the surface appearance of things by introducing // a hole, a window that accentuates the mystery. . . .” Goldsworthy “refers to this void, this negative area in his artwork’s // surfaces as a window into what lies below,” In the poem “Unconditional Belief in Heat,” the invader of a student apartment is reduced to “a human hand / flopping, like live tilapia.” Commenting on Richmond’s highly humid summer, the writer insists the intruder was only after her air conditioner. Told that his intentions must have been sinister, she says “I still / believe in—deep summer, Virginia— / that heat.” The resonance of specific references creates tropes that find a poem’s transcendent space.

The final poems in the book move into a different emotional space. Exploration of the past yields to inquiring and eloquent witness of life in the present. In “My Ugly,” antic youthful experience gives way to a “grimy industrial beach / in L.A.” that feels protective during Covid isolation. Characteristically specific, this poem’s setting locates the reader factually near a condemned and razed neighborhood that has become a haven

for the endangered El Segundo blue butterfly.
I’d expected extreme degrees of ugly at the beach,

but each time the low path of a military helicopter
hugged the coastline, the Caspian terns

alighted and wheeled in a helix of tiny
porcelain darts as the black choppers passed.

And I admired the tragedy performed
behind us, whose exclusive cast comprised

a troupe of blue butterflies that flitted
through the not-even-ruins, the total absence

of a six-thousand-foot Spanish-Moroccan
mansion that locals once called “the Castle,”

which LAX bought for eighty-six grand and bulldozed

In “Bodywork,” she and her husband David visit the Paris catacombs, an appropriate setting given these poems’ concerns with the ravages of mortality. It’s another informative poem, factually grounding the subject, as if the intelligence behind the poems hungrily gathers and weighs experience. Ear-pleasing prose-like lines accommodate edgy narrative. Distressing content is managed by swiftly propelled lines, phrasing, and evenly stressed lines rhythmically enjambed. In the catacombs, workers

had emptied the stinking graveyards in the late
eighteenth century, after the reek of human remains
strained sales even at the perfume shops
and the spring rains bloated the soil,
scenting the market at Les Halles
with corpses. The workers

had to move the bodies into the ossuary
at night, so as not to shock the public
or infuriate the Church. I couldn’t believe

tourists actually took photographs of themselves
with the skeletons, grinning and posing. . . .

Reaching the “algaed Fountain of Lethe” she won’t throw in a penny because she “didn’t want to / forget my life.” A few photographs will do. Her obsession with the betraying body has eased. Living in the catacombs’ fetid atmosphere of death, she comments, fish “completely lost their sight.” Rising to the surface “David and I sat in a café without speaking / of the dead, squinted in mid-afternoon sun / that seemed to heat our skin / into forgetting.” In the relative low key of this poem’s conclusion the betraying words anticipated in “The Judas Ear” don’t emerge; “all we’d said was: I’m starving and How bright.” The distinctive odor of the catacombs (like the distinctive odor of the void—its “seared steak, raspberries, gunpowder, and rum”) can be calmly regarded now.

About the Reviewer

Karen Kevorkian’s recent collection of poems is Quivira (3:A Taos Press, 2020)