Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland (Barrow Street Press, October 2019)
Reviewed by Chris Ketchum
To use one of the poet’s own words, Cara Dees’ debut collection, Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland, is a vigil:
- A devotional watching, esp. the watch kept on the eve of a festival or holy day.
- Prayers said or sung at a nocturnal service, spec. for the dead.
- An occasion or period of keeping awake for some special reason or purpose; a watch kept during the natural time for sleep.
- A wakefulness, or period of this, due to inability to sleep.
Dees’ speaker reflects on the periods before, during and after her mother’s death, from pre-diagnosis to aftermath. Every poem, even those dealing with eros, women’s reproductive rights, and other issues, is imbued with an awareness of the mother: at times, through direct expression, or as a voice ghosted in white space and subtext. Dees’ poems are awake to the suffering one feels after losing a loved one—elegies conscious and alive to grief, long after others would have submitted to sleep.
“Vigil,” the first section of Exorcism Lessons, introduces us to the book’s prevailing conflict, as well as the forms, styles, and techniques Dees develops throughout the collection. “Vigil for Another Onset” serves as a linguistic and thematic roadmap for the poems that follow, exemplifying the poet’s emotional concerns and the exquisite language she uses to render them:
Preferred words canceled
their footprints. No persimmon
could survive within that sirenpeal, no
strike aflame. Wrong to write, perhaps,
but true: in that place, your cancer
was the steadiest presence.
Bluing, mute, we toured the storm,
heaved steaming water to the mares,
disquieted the stunned apple branches.
In this passage, Dees displays some of the book’s most remarkable gifts, in addition to offering context for the poems that follow. Her speaker is one who reaches, always, for the right word—using a lexicon that draws from classical mythology, agriculture, and the landscape of Wisconsin—all while acknowledging the ultimate failure of language to “survive within that sirenpeal” of her mother’s prognosis. Where existing language falters, Dees invents her own dictionary of portmanteaux and compound words to narrow the gap between signifier and signified. Words like “sirenpeal,” “heartplace,” and “anti-ink,” “pleadpiece,” “afterday,” and “wildwanderer” purl the collection with a personal language reminiscent of Brenda Shaughnessy’s Interior with Sudden Joy—both works construct new terms that actively subvert phallogocentrism, locating women as the dominant voices in each poem on the word-level.
Dees’ particular écriture féminine enacts the anti-hierarchical, anti-binary style of writing imagined by Hélène Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medusa” and The Newly Born Woman. Dees resists a lyric form that reproduces binary couplings, such as active/passive, which make meaning through hierarchy—in hierarchy, Cixous would say, “Death is always at work.” Instead, these poems offer us compound words, terms conjoined with forward slashes and/or hyphens, and words recast as different parts of speech that signify through multiplicity rather than erasure. This is especially evident in the book’s third section, “After Tremor,” which contains the most direct examinations of female sexuality, patriarchy, sexual assault, and reproductive rights. The poem “Now I’m a foregone conclusion, the voices in my head talk and talk…” explores this multiplicity, demonstrating how a single word fails to convey the complexity of sexual assault or the circumstances under which it may occur:
… I was burgundied/
whipped with drink/shoeless/far from
myself, when his hands turned disciplined
over me. His body dug along/into/through/
beyond mine. I lost the residue of an inner summer.
Here, Dees gives us a choice: we may read each individual phrase as one retelling of the event, or we may consider each possible phrase simultaneously, as an accretion of truths. Dees’ language constructs a female identity that rejects singularity and centers women’s concerns in sex and grief and memory. Her unique lexicon enacts the jouissance depicted in the section’s titular poem, “After Tremor”: “two fingers … slightbent,” the speaker’s “multi-valenced sleep,” her nerves as they “re-soften.”
The possibilities of a non-phallocentric writing pervade nearly every concern explored in Exorcism Lessons. Dees challenges the Supreme Court’s authority over reproductive rights in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision in the poem “John Roberts,” (a poem which includes what might be the book’s funniest line: “You will like it, John”). She imagines the mother after death in “Resurrected, a version of my mother dwells in silence,” with the power to wonder “why I did not tell her what I did not tell her.” Her language prods her parents’ heteronormative expression of gender roles in “Complicated Grief” as the speaker’s father “learn[s] to keep / the windthrown house she had kept / for him.” But even these critical examinations of loved ones do not appear without tenderness. In “Windfall,” a poem with an epigraph explaining that the speaker’s father “resuscitates a paralyzed woman,” Dees perceives loss as the father experiences it: “… The ambulance gone, / you stand alone again in the hay. / Your doctor’s hands, pickpockets / of those unlit lands, again alone.” Wherever Dees turns the eye, she turns it with emotional vigilance.
What, then, in a book of such promising spirit, is there to exorcise? Perhaps it’s the very forces of oppression which this book scrutinizes—the patriarchal systems that frame the sun as “a good / and strange hymn, a huge oneness // feasting on itself, a proud husband / to itself,” that give preachers the sole power to perform an exorcism, and Justices legal jurisdiction over women’s bodies. Or maybe exorcism, here, is a disinterring of the spirit: how an author/speaker gives her mother new life in language. It’s a language tailormade for women—their bodies/hearts/actions/passions/logos/pathos/minds.
Chris Ketchum is a poet from northern Idaho. He is an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University, where he serves as a poetry editor for Nashville Review. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Dunes Review, Five Points, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. He was runner-up for the 2019 Pinch Literary Award in poetry.