girl show by Kristy Bowen
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Cheerleader
Black Lawrence Press, 2013
Perfect bound, 53 pages, $13.95
girl show, by Kristy Bowen, is a kind of carnival of language, a wild display of attractively scary images, like a traveling circus experienced and described by girls—maybe girls who want to see it, then run away and join it. Part one is the ballyhoo, or “sensational advertising” for the traveling show, but it is the show, too, giving us a world of daily chores and ready dangers, worthy of escape,
gone blue round the mouth,
gone black round the edges.
A ballyhoo is also a fantastic bird with four wings and two heads who could whistle through one beak and sing through another, and the small town girl speakers here are equally fantastic. It’s like we’re entering the sideshow tents of their ordinary lives and seeing the queasy, uneasy truths within. In the poem “trouble,” this circus or carnival connection becomes explicit as
The plague of women spindled
on the ballyhoo, chaos in their hips
the sleek black of their throats.
And in “carnival season,” we know the girls have got to get out of their tornado-alley lives:
Summer tears the roof from the house,
follows us home whistling
But in part two, menagerie, the girls are truly on display, part of the show, labeled and exploited as lizard girl, gorilla girl, mermaid girl, or headless girl, and so on, “All our costumes ill fitting,/meant for another, smaller girl.” If they left the confinements of their domestic lives, dusty rooms, and ghost-filled houses, it was only to enter the confinements of boxcars and circus tents, magicians’ coffins, display cabinets, and mermaid tanks.
Part three of the book is bump and grind, featuring the erotic and exotic acts, the risqué aspect of the traveling circus, the carnival’s dirty secrets. Here are the dancers, rope dancers, sword swallowers, and magician’s assistants, sawed in half, truncated, transformed, or distorted—“We all die tragically.”
Historically, the circus went cross country by train to the towns that so longed for their spectacle and excitement, and train wrecks are part of the story here in girl show, too, the book ending with a long prose poem called “train song.” But I’ll return to the magic of “disassembling maria,” one of the poems that demonstrates the inner resources of these domestic-circus girls, who speak through their troubled circumstances and past their outrageous exploitations:
Nightly, as if on cue, my mouth surrenders
peppermints and a length of chicken wire.
The audience stares like a crime scene
but the space inside the box is quiet,
dark and sweet with heat. He’ll determine
which side is the heart and raise the sword
above his head. My body will go on giving
things up: pink scarves and the ace of spades.
There’s a small feathered animal nesting
in the cove beneath my lungs. I hiccup.
Hide her beneath the table when he starts to speak.
I love that strange little hiccup, that urge to protect something from all the relentless giving. I love the space inside that box, where the magician’s assistant knows she is also a magician.
Kathleen Kirk is a writer whose work appears online and in print in Eclectica, Menacing Hedge, Poetry East, RHINO, Poems & Plays, Spillway, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. She is the author of five poetry chapbooks, most recently, Interior Sculpture: Poems in the voice of Camille Claudel (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) and Nocturnes (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2012), and the poetry editor for Escape Into Life. She blogs about poetry, reading, and life at Wait! I Have a Blog?!
Galaga by Michael Kimball
Reviewed by C. L. Bledsoe, The Lit Reporter
Boss Fight Books, June 2014
eBook, 136 pp., $14.95
There is a trend in recent books in which writers address pop culture from their childhoods. Everything from the computer game The Oregon Trail to any number of movies, TV shows, and celebrities have been the subject for poems and novels. Of course, these books aren’t really about the games/celebrities, etc., so much as they are about the era and the authors’ formative experiences with these bits of cultural flotsam.
In Galaga, Kimball looks back to the arcade game craze of the early 1980s. The book is divided into 255 short sections (255 because that’s how many levels the game Galaga has), often consisting of a single paragraph, that each relate to some aspect of the game and his experiences—everything from actual game play to hats inspired by the game to cultural references. It’s sort of an encyclopedia, not only of the game, but also Kimball’s love of the game.
The book is more than simply an extended Wikipedia article about Galaga, although it does chronicle interesting facets of the game at length. Kimball delves deeply into his own psyche and past. Galaga was more than just a diversion for him, it was a refuge from an abusive childhood. Visions of a scared, scarred child clinging not only to an escape but the opportunity for success and self-esteem make this book something more than the standard, “Hey, remember this bit of pop culture?”
The book is episodic without a sustained, clear narrative, although it could be argued that the author’s obsession with the game is the narrative. Kimball opens the book with an anecdote about Alec Baldwin, who claimed that playing Galaga was the only way he could bring himself down from cocaine binges so that he could go home and actually sleep. This opening is somewhat shocking, but it reveals the importance of the game as a lifeline. We would expect no less from Kimball, a writer known for his brutal honesty.
C. L. Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel, Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____ (Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available here. His story, "Leaving the Garden," was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South's Million Writers Award. His story, “The Scream,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. His nonfiction piece, “Thesis,” was nominated for 2012 Best of the Net. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.
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