“There’s a Way Back”: On Anna Journey’s Vulgar Remedies, LSU Press, 2013
REVIEW BY LEILA CHATTI
Anna Journey’s second book Vulgar Remedies takes the reader through the elusive world that exists between waking and sleeping, between present and memory. With its vivid—and often grotesque—images bordering on the surreal, reoccurring symbols flit by in our periphery, appearing and then vanishing as quickly as they came. The feeling of déjà vu lingers throughout the dreamlike Vulgar Remedies: moments of tack-sharp clarity are juxtaposed with fluid, unexpected leaps that leave the reader intrigued.
There are a number of poems that directly address slumber—most noticeably the insomnia sonnets (to Ambien and Egyptian Chamomile Farmers)—but the book focuses primarily on the dreamlike qualities of memory. One theme that remains consistent throughout Vulgar Remedies is the desire to retrace one’s steps. This appears in the book’s structure, as images—the sea, fire, birds, cigarettes—resurface repeatedly throughout Journey’s poems detailing childhood, failed relationships, and places left.
The book begins with a poem of reminiscence. In “Why Bioluminescent Shrimp Remind Me of Laura,” we are transported to the past via cocktail shrimp: “There are girls who exist,/like Laura and me, who’d glow—//at fifteen—who’d go up/in flames.” This poem examines the relationship between Laura and the speaker, one that is characterized by sexual tension and bodily mutilation. The two girls sit in a parking lot playing “the cigarette game” in which they burn each other, waiting to see “
ho can stand it//the longest?” The power of withstanding also applies to sexual fumblings later that night, in which Laura says the speaker doesn’t “know what to do//with a woman’s body” and the speaker responds by “[flinching]//from her kiss, [turning her] spine/to her lips.” In the present, the speaker is unable to shake this distant memory as her body still bears the visible proof, a “row of scars” on her arm she “now [lies] about as chicken pox.” She feels the ghost of Laura’s memory vividly throughout the rest of the collection, imagining it crouched beneath the window.
When she remembers another childhood romance, Journey uses images of smoke and fire to reflect on another instance of sexual experience; in “Warning,” she writes:
rolled under his tongue, the one
whose scent was clove smoke and a soft brie,
winging after a blinding light.
I must’ve singed the buds
in his tongue to desert thistles—
left a taste like a saint’s
charred footprint. As you recede,
memory, a warning: my eye (“Warning,” 12-20)
As with Laura, this relationship feels dangerous; throughout the poem, there are images of fire, a slow burning just below the surface. This boy appears again later in the book, in “Moose Head Mounted on the Wall of Big Pappa’s Barbeque Joint” and “Saint Bruise,” and each time he is identified by this particular fetish. The speaker’s eye has been tainted by this act; when she looks back, it is with that eye.
Throughout Vulgar Remedies, there is a fixation on the body—her own, and the bodies of others. The body is both an anchor in the present through its immediate sensory experience, as well as a lens through which to view the past. In “Dermatographia,” the body of the speaker’s mother is placed at the center, and the past is unfurled through her skin condition. “When I Reached into the Stomach of a Fistulated Dairy Cow: Sixth Grade Field Trip to Sonny’s Dairy Barn” shows the speaker simultaneously reflecting on a former lover and her experiences reaching into the bodies of other animals. “Saint Bruise” details the story of a bruise that remains from adolescence. In the poem, she examines it in a mirror and writes:
[…] the flush
of blurred nerves, the old
border, those forked veins: that
door which remains
open for the patron
saint of what breaks, that ghost
of what’s always
been broken. (“Saint Bruise,” 34-41)
As the poems continue, the body continues to root us in the past. Often, these glimpses are tinged with darkness, a sense of shadowy grief. When the speaker recalls the death of her uncle, her memory of him is inextricably attached to his last words to her: “Where’d you get those boobs?” (“Elegy Where I Initially Refuse to Eat Sand” and “The Devil’s Apron”).
The “Vulgar Remedies” which lend the book its title also involve the body, grief, and memory. In “Vulgar Remedies (2): If you Hold a Dying Creature during Childhood,” the speaker recounts her first encounter with death and the mythical consequence it had on her body—her shaky hands. When mourning the loss of her childhood home in “Nightmare before the Foreclosure,” the speaker fixates on the door which marked her and her sister’s heights through childhood; her nightmare, then, is a bodily one, a fear of being erased, as she writes, “I awoke believing//there’d be no proof left/that my sister and I had ever been/that small” (20-23). “Moose Head Mounted on the Wall of Big Pappa’s Barbeque Joint” opens with two lines that compare a moose’s severed body to her lost childhood: “His form half-disappeared like the hind/legs of your childhood.” Journey concludes the poem by using the moose’s turned head to comment poignantly on her own grief, powerfully writing, “Who knows/how long he’s looked back.”
Furthermore, in “Tooth Fairy Pillow,” the speaker uses her body to haggle for the past. She calculates the trades with unnamed urgency—hangnails, fistfuls of hair, and her thumb tip in exchange for her cat, her grandfather, and her old screened porch. In this way, the speaker mourns the past to the extent that she is willing to disfigure her body for one more glimpse of it. Journey writes:
There’s a way
back, I know, through the twin bed’s
shallow frame. There’s a way
back to the life
where my blond nightstand holds
a square pillow trimmed
in eyelet lace. (“Tooth Fairy Pillow,” 9-15)
“As I Rewind,” the final poem of Vulgar Remedies, is a fitting conclusion to a collection that expertly travels through time. Ghosts reappear in the rewound footage: the cat, the grandfather, the childhood home, and, perhaps most importantly, the speaker herself as a child. She is at the center of this home video; her grandfather, she writes, “can’t stop//focusing the lens on me.” This poem has a softer sense of grief to it, a mature sadness nearer to acceptance. At the end, the ever-present smoke “ciphers back into leaves.” In its quiet way, it is made whole once again.