Five Reasons to Read: Said the Manic to the Muse,
Review by Sarah Maria Medina
Jeanann Verlee, author of Racing Hummingbirds, now debuts her second book, Said the Manic to the Muse (Write Bloody, 2015). Verlee summons the manic to converse with her muse. They swim cold depths and resurface with mouthfuls of napalm and lullabies. The surreal exists within the mundane: a bison found dead in her bed, breaths as either the unexpected or the wilding of language. In one poem, the narrator defends herself inside a therapist’s office, but then discovers that she is sitting inside the metro. Later, when Mania speaks, she berates a failed suicide; and yet, a gorgeous twine of hope burrows its way through the book.
1. Jeanann Verlee brings her intimate circle of poets & artists to her pages. Her poem Bridge Song, dedicated to Angel Nafis, is like a private letter, written to an ancient heart-friend.
a dogpile of convulsion, lurch and moan.
I sobbed because he was gone, and that man
held me, Angel. Held me like a father holds
rage, arms tight across as lifejacket.
Shuddered like that ‘til daybreak.
He whispered, I want this wreckage.
2. Verlee speaks to loss— the child that could have been born but didn’t come. Children walk through her pages: at times haunting, or made of cotton, or appearing as a boy that knocks on her door, selling chocolates. In A Boy Named Never, she opens the door and he reaches through her ribcage, surrealism erupting on the page.
He pulled out one of the canaries.
Walked away humming a lullaby,
kissing her soft yellow head.
3. Oh, the MUTHA question! How do we bury our regret, yet retrieve it from our deepest ruins to liberate us from it all? In Careful the Blood, Verlee describes her mother’s strength— how a mouth of Budweiser would bring swag to her hips, and let her lead a roomful of men. In Genetics of Regret, Verlee admits to that which many of us hide: unrung phone calls, long spans of distance spawned from the violence that was home, a daughter’s reaction to her mother, the inertia of it all.
You still get ferocious. Sorry I struck back. Loved you so hard—
then turned like a coin that has run out of spin.
4. A choir of dissident, untamed voices sing into Said the Manic to the Muse; they are not left to a cold, snowy death. They are cradled, sung to, and invited to the soiree. Verlee speaks to the possibility of a psychotic break in The Voices. Each insecurity is spooled forth as voice: the mother, the father, the committee, and various unknown names filter in and out. In Manic, a feminine character described as both “tornado” and “the red-headed breeze on your face” makes her way across the page. The free-form verse seems to dance as Mania might wish to if she wore a party dress and the page was her entrance. In a prose poem titled Good Girl, Verlee lists why she takes pills with a glass of water each morning. “(So my hands won’t shake.) (So my heart won’t race.) (So my face won’t thaw.” With each line, she continues with an exacting pace and rhythm. On the facing page, The Mania Speaks seems to shout back at the Good Girl.
You clumsy bootlegger. Little daffodil.
I watered you with an ocean & you plucked one little vein?
Verlee lets these alternate voices spin and dance, shouting and cursing across her pages: an intimate theatre of self-discovery and reason, fighting and redemption, penning tales of cotton babies and weeping, pearls of sweat and new poems.
5. A raw honesty sings throughout the book. In Lessons in Alone, the opening line instructs, “On your first date, do not hand him your vagina,/ polished and thirsty. Do not allow him to rub your back/ or your shoulders./ Do not overdrink.” As the poem intentionally spins inward on itself, the narrator layers the date-narrative with an unexpected turn. Truth rises up, a purpled bruise on the jawbone of faith in letting the tongue free to speak: “When the wine makes words slippery as butter,/tell him everything you shouldn’t./Your diagnoses, how you have no insurance.” Verlee continues a litany (as in both prayer and recitation) of personal details, only to write, “Do it precise./ Calm./ When he runs from this quiet grenade, find the bar./ Tell yourself you did it for his sake. Besides, you’re busy./Smoke another cigarette. Take another honey whiskey.”
The last two lines, which follow, pop and smolder. They drag you down into a deep cold pond, but I won’t spoil it; I’ll let you read the poem whole, bound paper and print between your deserving fingers.
Verlee carves out space for the hidden voices; she speaks to those of us who have crawled out from below a dead bison, be it depression or illness or a dying relationship. To have suffered abuse as a child and run screaming, open mouth blooming peonies, makes us no less of a whole person. It only means we must gather ourselves, again and again, chanting ourselves back. This is what Verlee’s poems do: they piece us back together, one by one, calling out the mysteries of mental illness, love torn and opened. Her poems promise us more than another year of grenade honey whiskey confessions. They restore us in their honesty, and ask us to pen a “pool of moonburst.”