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Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Cure For Suicide (Cervena Barva Press) by Larissa Shmailo

reviewed by Richard Barrett

The key to unlocking Larissa Shmailo’s A Cure For Suicide is found in the collection’s penultimate poem: ‘Exorcism (Found Poem)’. The primary subject matter of that piece is the My Lai massacre in Vietnam; the secondary subject is the showing of the linkage between the domestic and the international. In this specific case how lawbreakers in America, at the time, were given the option of joining the army as an alternative to imprisonment. The piece is making the point that with an army so constituted – i.e. made up to a large degree of soldiers who had no particular desire to be there and who were, furthermore ‘poorly trained’ – it’s surprising there weren’t repetitions of My Lai. It’s an understanding of how seemingly disparate subject matters are linked that Shmailo wants us to take from that poem; and it’s by applying that understanding to her whole, wonderful collection that we begin to get a handle on Shmailo’s worldview.

Reading A Cure For Suicide Shmailo’s themes and preoccupations make themselves known to us. There’s “movement”: the identifying of personal turmoil with the turmoil of nature, as explored in ‘My First Hurricane’. Then the whirling, spinning inebriated dancing of the title poem follows, which, in turn, is followed by the nihilistic ‘Dancing with the Devil’. She returns to contemplating the movement of nature in ‘Oscillation’, informing us how ‘The world was born in swing and sway’, going on, then, to consider movement of a poetically technical kind in ‘Sea (Sic)’, where she addresses us in the italicized parenthesis under the title: (Readers: Please read the stanzas in any order you like.)* So for Shmailo, even the words of her poems cannot be assumed to be stationery; even they are just as subject to the possibilities of movement as everything else in the world. 

As already stated, “nature” is also a feature of this collection. Besides the two poems mentioned above, there is ‘Vow’ which opens the collection, wherein the protagonist reassuringly describes to her lover how their affair will have all the characteristics of nature. Then there is the remarkable ‘Aerial View of the Rockies’: containing the wonderful image of ‘gods [who] like to trace their fingers in the world; / Like leaves from a primordial tree’ as an explanation for how the dips between mountains occur. The world is anthropomorphised as we are told ‘landforms / Bare their veins’. The poem displays a deep Eco-consciousness as we become aware that the person with the ‘Aerial View of the Rockies’ is realising the earth is slowly dying: ‘Clever of her to suicide this way / Leaving no one but me to know’.

The adoption of the standard feminine in the addressing of the earth in ‘Aerial View of the Rockies’ points towards another of Shmailo’s concerns: that of being a woman. In the appropriately hallucinatory ‘Abortion Hallucination’ the image of a snake recurs. In the poem the snake has multiple meanings: it has biblical connotations, is meant to symbolise fear and is also meant to represent the penis. Shmailo captures the occasional embarrassment of sex: ‘remember that I like / handling snakes     and smile / and as always he softens     grows smaller’. Present in ‘Abortion Hallucination’ as a disturbing undercurrent, as well, is a suggestion of child abuse.

In ‘Ayah’ and ‘Bhakti’ we find spirituality and gods. ‘Ayah’ expresses bafflement at how and why Christianity developed given its origins. ‘Bhakti’ appears a challenge to Hinduism – offering redemption to an outcaste woman.

Returning to the collections title poem – ‘How to Meet and Dance with Your Death (Como encuentrar y bailar con su muerte): A Cure for Suicide’  - we see the emergence of another of Shmailo’s concerns: the blurring of the boundaries of the self resultant from alcohol and drug consumption. In this piece, seemingly heavily indebted to Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano, the reader is provided with a recipe for intoxication:

‘2 gallons of pulque (fermented Mayan beverage), or if unavailable, gin

1 case tequila

several cases of beer

1 bottle Mescal

2 ounces good marijuana

carton cigarettes

three large peyotes

coffee as needed’

The drug experience is alluded to, again, in ‘Abortion Hallucination’.

Somewhat unexpectedly Shmailo also has a fondness for painting urban scenes with her poetry. She does it with great skill though; in ‘Untitled (Night, avenue…)’ we find: ‘Night, avenue, street lamps, the drug store, / irrational and dusky light. / Live another decade, two more - / It stays the same; there’s no way out’; and, in ‘Harlem Line’: ‘Auction: Sin City cabaret, Signs and awnings, / …Skate keys. Real estate. / Where open houses become closed. (All hope / like a lottery…’

What the reader needs to ask themselves – returning to the lesson of ‘Exorcism (Found Poem)’ -  is: what linkage does Shmailo want us to make between these apparently unconnected themes? And because it isn’t mathematics we’re dealing with here, but poetry, every reader will answer that question differently.

I don’t think it’s a dodging of the question for me to say I’d prefer not to impose my own interpretation of A Cure For Suicide on any reader of this review, as I think the order that I’ve addressed the collections themes has gone some way towards suggesting how they may be linked (or at least how they seem linked to me); it’s just that I’d rather the collection's ambiguity be allowed to remain intact, in order for every reader to make of it what they will.

One final note: the most linguistically innovative poem of the collection is ‘Bloom’ – perhaps not surprisingly as it’s to a large extent inspired by the Molly Bloom stream-of-consciousness at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses. Herein we find Shmailo free-associating (‘Ill-bred, no bread / Dirty whore’s puking / Just giving me head…’) and punning wildly (‘A weak bird’ referring to herself, using the English colloquialism of “bird” to mean “woman”, whilst at the same time extending the use of the bird images, meaning actual creatures of the air, which populate the poem; and ‘I’m a mammal, / I have mammaries,’). As ‘Bloom’ comes just before the end of A Cure For Suicide, it can be called a great note on which to close a great collection. 

* An idea I first came across with the novel The Unfortunates (1969), written by the English experimentalist B.S. Johnson. Each chapter of the book was produced as a self-contained booklet and sold in a box. The readers only instruction was to read Chapter1 first and Chapter 20 last; the in- between Chapters were to be read in any order.

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