Half-Alive, Full of Ghosts

Said the Manic to the Muse by Jeanann Verlee
Write Bloody Publishing, 2015

Reviewed by Kathryn Merwin

 

Said the Manic

“Sorry I came out hard and sharp and full of claws. Ruined your body. Only learned the wrong things. I’m sorry you’re so far. Sorry I have no intention of coming to find you.”

In her second collection, Said the Manic to the Muse, Jeanann Verlee explores the nature of manic depression and its effects on every facet of a woman’s life. Her poems spread from the taproot of mental illness and the female psyche, generating a surrealist space of glass teeth, pink crinoline, and bus tickets to nowhere, in which the manic is constantly in conversation with the muse. This relationship changes shape throughout the collection, shifting from the complexities of the mother-daughter dynamic, to the brutality of abuser to abused, to the gentle reflections of lover to beloved. The jolting expression of manic depression comes across in the erratic movement between the themes presented in her poems, which unapologetically change from page to page, refusing to allow the reader to stand still and catch her breath.

The poems that make up this collection are written outside of the boundaries of form, meter, or scheme. They burn, simmer, and explode as they please, ruthlessly defying the pretty idea of what “women’s poetry” should be. Verlee takes no prisoners – she addresses the many shades of abuser that she has encountered in her own life, presenting her personal stake in each moment throughout the book. The speaker shifts frequently in this collection, taking on the voices of famously defiant women, such as Jezebel, Kali, and Medea. The inability of the manic to find stability in her life, her mind, and her interpersonal relationships bleeds through the lines of these poems, presenting the struggle and loss so frequently experienced by those suffering from mental illness.

This book came five years after Verlee’s debut poetry collection, Racing Hummingbirds. Centered around violence, God, and spirituality, her first collection is composed of writing with teeth. Her words move quickly and ferociously, constantly disrupting one another in attempt to jolt the reader into the space of the poem, no matter how uncomfortable that space may be. Verlee generates that discomfort with clear intent – a theme which carries over into the poetry of Said the Manic to the Muse.

In “Children Made of Cotton,” Verlee’s speaker is a maternal one, gently addressing her son. The innocence of this pure and unspoiled child through the eyes of an adult woman struggling under the weight of mania and trauma is translated through the choice to characterize him as a cotton lamb. She details a conversation between this mother-figure and child, in which the child asks where he came from – “I brought you home from a place where hundreds of little lamb-boys live.” She generates a building sense of discomfort, acknowledging outright that she is lying and bringing everything in the space of the poem into question. She writes:

“My second lie is to tell him the laundry is perfectly safe. I watch him bob at the
water’s soapy rim, gurgling and straining, fighting the impossible pull.”

She describes watching her child begin to experience struggle, helpless to shield him from her own instability and misjudgment. She assumes the burden of responsibility after she pulls him from the dryer with burn marks on his body, closing the poem with the jarring line of remorse, “All of my bones break at once.”

“Careful the Blood” further develops the presence of a mother-figure in the collection. Verlee writes:

“Here I learned to move. Swore never, and
failed. It’s in the blood. Mama’s long strut,
hard jaw. When baby died, she counted down
the ticks of her own pulse. When papa left, the
hard in her bones hardened.”

She outlines a vague shape of her mother, who exists as a phantom-other in the book. The trauma she has experienced stemming from this relationship manifests itself throughout the first-person narratives of the speaker’s struggles, such as the loss of her own pregnancy, mirroring her mother’s miscarriage. She points a finger at this character without ever truly assigning blame: rather, she seems to be at terms with this once-painful absence.

Domestic violence presents itself in almost every piece – more domineeringly in some than others. “Leaving Lena,” a prose poem and anchor of the collection, provides a narrative of the complexity of relationships hilted by violence. The static speaker, through whom Verlee frequently enters the collection herself, engages with an abusive relationship from the outside, while meditating on the countless masks domestic violence hides behind.

Verlee personifies mania directly in “The Mania Speaks,” giving it a voice so loud, it’s impossible for the reader to ignore. By abruptly changing the deictic developed in earlier poems, she allows the mental illness to speak for itself, mimicking the pattern of a sudden bout of mania or a manic episode. It viciously demands agency as the dominant force, with its victim locked in a chokehold. The illness asserts itself through the words –

“Now you want out? Think you’ll wrestle me out of you with prescriptions?”

– and the weight of it on the reader’s shoulders becomes oppressive. Verlee forces the reader to experience mania in a few short lines by placing her in the role of its victim. The illness speaks in the first person, addressing the reader and generating the stifling and impactful discomfort Verlee is known for. The poem leaves the reader uneasy, vulnerable, and threatened, with the mania whispering in her ear, “I’m bigger than God.” The malignant, all-encompassing darkness of manic depression bursts through the lines like a river through cracks in a dam. The mania becomes a recurring character within the collection, joining the mother-figure, the abuser, and the poet herself.

The brutal honesty of Jeanann Verlee’s words bleeds recklessly through the poems in Said the Manic to the Muse. She writes without hesitation, transforming language into menacing characterizations and visceral trauma by wrenching the reader into the poem. There’s no sugarcoating here – this bracingly confrontational and unapologetic collection will leave you half-alive, full of ghosts.

 


KATHRYN MERWIN is a native of Washington, DC, and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing through Western Washington University. Her poetry has been featured or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Sugar House Review, Prairie Schooner, and Quiddity, amongst others.

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