The cover of Anna Journey’s new collection of poems, Vulgar Remedies, is an apt metaphor for the kind of poetry she writes. The cover image, “House #3,” by Francesca Woodman, seems to depict a young woman materializing in a sort of magical, alchemical process in an abandoned, dilapidated house. In just this way, Journey’s poetry partakes of transformation, the magic of dreams, and a nostalgia for a past that may never have occurred.
Time, too, as in dreams in which a dead parent is alive again, and while you’re dreaming it, you believe it is so, is subject to the magic of transformation, alchemy.
The book’s title is found in two poems from the first of the collection’s four sections: “Vulgar Remedies: Tooth and Salt” and “Vulgar Remedies (2): If You Hold a Dying Creature during Childhood.” In the first, we read that vulgar remedies refers to a museum exhibit called Vulgar Remedies: Belief, Knowledge and Hypersymbolic Cognition,” devoted to ancient wisdom for curing and preventing ailments and unwanted conditions.
a person doesn’t burn
her childhood teeth, I read on the exhibit’s
glass case, she’s cursed to search for them
after death in a pail of blood….
The visit to the museum takes place three weeks after the poet’s wedding, and she reflects how this piece of ancient magical thinking could have been incorporated into her own wedding vows, reminding us how “civilized” incantations partake no less of the transformative appeal of words than those of antiquity. Voodoo all around us everyday.
Much of the dream-magic involves childhood – friends, pets, familiar household objects, locations – all half-reappearing in semi-solid form, leapfrogging out of the dead past into the living, non-temporal present of dreams. There is Laura, an adolescent friend whose sexual appeal somehow precedes but anticipates adult eroticism. There is an uncle whose last words to her before he died from a heart attack were Where’d you get those boobs? It’s an image that comes back in dreams, the uncle back from the dead, in dreams. There is the boy from childhood who asks to suck her eyeball (Joey Seal, we learn his name, the third time he shows up in a poem).
Mississippi is the childhood dream scene, and maybe that’s why I sense some Faulknerian gothic at work in these poems that I can’t quite put my finger on. “Danse Macabre, Mississippi: My Great-Grandmother Fires a BB Gun” is one such poem. Two others involve “Big Pappa’s Barbecue Joint,” which is full of animal spirits and magic and bring back half-remembered scenes from childhood. The house her parents lived in, where she and her sister grew up, no longer in the family, comes back regularly in dreams. “Nightmare before the Foreclosure” is a perfect example, especially for the sense of anxiety hovering over the words.
I dreamed the new tenants erased
My childhood. I dreamed they painted
over the broom closet’s door. The door
with the pencil marks my parents made each year to show
how much my sister and I had grown. Twenty
years’ worth of marks. Yardsticks
on our skulls. We’d balance in the fumes
of the closet’s shoe polish, shoulder blades thrown
back. We’d practice
a somber stillness, then flip
and gloat over that year’s growth: whole
inches in childhood, a half
inch as we evened out as teens, even a sliver
where we crammed ourselves in when we visited
at Christmas. As we filled the closet with eggnog, with bourbon
as we breathed. I dreamed
the new tenants painted the door. I dreamed each pencil
mark vanished, like rungs of a ladder
tugged out. Where I’m left at the top
unable to climb down. I awoke believing
there’d be no proof left
that my sister and I had ever been
that small. I called
my parents the day after the nightmare. I asked
if they’d bring the door with them
when the house was sold. I asked them
to unhinge it. I asked them
to carry it with them.
It’s the urge we have, in dreams, to preserve what’s vital to our identity, to guard it, protectively. Similarly, manipulating time, like a yo-yo, is a magic theme that recurs in Vulgar Remedies. “Tooth Fairy Pillow” is based in this urge. “There’s a way/back, I know, through the twin bed’s//shallow frame. There’s a way/back to the life…” “Hide and Seek with Time Machine” picks up on this theme as well, and certain poems seem to capture and preserve time within the talismanic objects they address: “Wool Blanket Covered in Nipples”; “Black Porcelain French Telephone”; “As I Rewind,” the final poem in the collection.
The flip side of all this dreaming, this escape from the bonds of space/time, is insomnia! Insomnia and alertness, which are bad/good. There’s the delightful poem, “The History of Coffee,” which honors the late-night drinking of coffee with her mother and an acknowledgement of her insomniac tendencies (the mother character, by the way, is another powerful, iconic figure full of southern drawl and sexy languor) is immediately followed by a series of “Sonnets to Ambien,” reflections on insomnia. Ambien of course is a sedative.
In the Country of No Sleep, Not a Doze,
everyone’s a distant cousin, the coat hook’s
Swedish nose, the lamp’s cloisonné orchids
lit between its neck and mine. Even the electric
lynx looks ancestral. Angel, let me tell you
a story: the woman goes out, hypnotized,
into the Denver night. She wears nothing
but a white nightshirt, though it’s twenty degrees.
After the car wreck, the cops find her
in the middle of the intersection pissing
the shape of the Land of Insomnia,
which steams as it spreads, which freezes, fixed
to the crosswalk’s bars. This country’s the largest
island, with one inhabitant, with one light always left on.
Though none of the examples I’ve quoted here actually quite shows it, most of Journey’s verse is in brief, two- or three-line stanzas, like a skeleton, though as I have shown, they’re full of vivid, arresting images (for instance, the gorgeous opening of “Leaving Texas”: “The gold frequencies of cicadas cinch up, then diffuse/their pressed bruises – you hear them throb through the taxi’s//cracked windows.”). In “Alarm (2),” by the way, Journey notes, “I’ve found/no cure for the world’s reactions.” So – ultimately no remedies, vulgar or otherwise, but in these poems themselves!