The Kingdom and Cage of the Self: Theresa Senato Edwards' Voices Through Skin

Voices Through Skin by Theresa Senato Edwards
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011 (90 pages)
ISBN: 978-0983293101

There is a tautological tic running throughout Theresa Senato Edwards' Voices Through Skin, a sick stutter that is simultaneously ill and provides relief to the speaker and the reader. The reader first encounters this helpless repetition in "Back Seat, 1965 Forward, Back", the first poem in the collection. In the poem, a young girl is in a car, in thrall to the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder:

She always makes a swooping motion, outlining
movements needed to bless the air
inside the car.    Bless the air inside the car
inside the car. Bless
the air
the air   inside the car. She

The forward motion of the poem here just stops to accommodate the girl's illness. I love how the speaker and the reader come inside the illness for a moment and become blanketed in it. It's a moment that enacts sickness, yes, but it's also a moment of poetry, of beauty. Caught in a circular blessing.

My favorite moments of the book are moments like this one, where the loop of obsession is created in the poem and draws everyone inexorably into its vortex. It happens again in "Joanie Bach," a list of anxieties and the obsessive-compulsive actions the 'she' uses to curb those anxieties. The movement of the poem is almost tornadic—the ranging litany of fears circle the 'she' and the reader, then becomes compacted at the end of the poem, crowded into the same suffocating space of the last stanza and whipping the poem into a fevered pitch. (Although I will admit that I wished for a different ending for the poem— ending with the phrase "no resolve" seemed to release the power of the built anxiety that the list of fears had created.) The obsession I found so compelling pops up again in "Mother's Day," where Kim Addonizio's sonnenizio form is employed. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but formal constraints are a kind of obsessive ritual, too, aren't they? I can't help but read it that way, at least in this book where counting and repetition ward off the devil in all his forms. The sonnenizio is particularly successful here for that reason, and the dogged repetition of the word 'still' yields some wonderful moments— the speaker who, aging, "distill[s] like Crème de Menthe left open in a stifling attic"; the speaker's renaming her mother's tomb "that ornate stillhouse"; and the chilling quiet of "the snow's stillicide" that settles into the last line of the poem, sealing the poem like a tomb.

There is a beautiful phrase that Edwards uses in her poem "Clinic," 'the undertow of recall,' that describes the struggle the book enacts. Edwards is engaged in a battle with pain, with memory. It's an exhausting battle, and a violent one. The speakers in Edwards' poems wage war against memory in an attempt to wrest themselves from the grip of the past, first in the 'mind' section of the book, and then, far more violently, in the 'body' section. Undertow is an apt word here; the speakers of these poems seem to feel themselves in danger of going under-of relinquishing some essential parts of themselves to the past, to memory, to ex-lovers, to illness. Often, as a reader, I felt alternately overwhelmed and compelled by the immensity of the anxiety and pain in these poems. (So much so, that when I reached "The Touch of the Notch," which is only four poems into the book, I felt relieved to hear the speaker's calm place described:

She'd done absurd things as a child:
the counting of steps up stairways,
the repeating grip of the doorknob in her palm,
always going back to the knob,
going back to the corner of the door,
it had a notch in one of its grooves,
a smooth wooden pool of calm.
How wonderful those 'o' sounds are. How enacting of that calmness, with all those 'o's giving way to the long 'o' sounds of 'grooves,' 'smooth,' 'wooden' and 'pool.')

The risk, the undertow the poems work against is the threat of erasure, as in the poem "Flat & Hollow" where the blunt headline "woman found/naked in field adjoining mall" becomes so disturbing when pressed and copied onto Silly Putty. The image of the naked woman in the field is disturbing in part because of its lack of detail, its anonymity. In the act of violence, the woman has become unpersoned, and is merely another feature of the suburban landscape. The speaker of "Flat & Hollow" imagines the rest of her naked body in an attempt to recover her.

Several times during the course of reading this book I felt uncomfortable with the speakers' baldness in their treatment of grief, of their bodies, of their lovers' bodies. I'm sure I was meant to feel uncomfortable: the discomfort I felt at "her lover's cum clots within a short squirt of her pee" is there to counteract the awful unspecificity of the landscape woman in the field. I am grateful for the unflinching eye Edwards takes to the unbeautiful body and all its anxiety, grief and pubic hair, but I did wish for a little more strangeness. Although the desire for more weirdness could be my own selfish impulse as a reader; the moments of Weird in the book are so wonderful, I couldn't help but want more. In "On Your Back," the speaker describes her friend's insect tattoo and compares it to her friend's illness:

Purple wings of a two-inch fly emerge

The harsh pink insect shape    hovering
the muscles to the right of your spine.

Violet diagonal marks below to the left,
as if shadows of insect flight,


the bug of your body.

How neatly and bizarrely the disease is anointed in the kingdom of the body: "Lupus: the bug of your body." It is an image that sees truly, and it is an image that makes something strange and beautiful from the true. It is the disease itself, and it is the ugly beauty of the disease. It is one of my favorite moments in the book, and it's surprising in its near-levity and beauty, when the poems that have come before have been so violent, so painful, so hard-fought and hard-won. And I wanted more. But making infection and pain beautiful is a way of distancing, isn't it? It's a way to transcend and transform the everyday. And yet, it's intimacy, not distance that this book, for all its anxiety and obsession, is about.

Katie Schmid is a graduate of the Wyoming MFA program, where she won the University's Outstanding Thesis Award for 2011. Her work has been published in Quarterly West, Hot Metal Bridge, Event Magazine, Best New Poets 2009 and online at The Missouri Review. Her book manuscript recently took second place in the Santa Fe Writer's Project Poetry Awards. She lives in Illinois with her husband, the musician & writer David Henson, and their two dogs.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761