by Julianna Baggott
88 pages, SIU Press /
Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, 2017
Review by Meg Boyles
Enclosed in Julianna Baggott’s poetry collection, Instructions, Abject & Fuming, are poems on the worlds inside our world. These poems brim with the strange uncensored imagination of their creator—a love poem by a taxidermied falcon, a gossip’s mouth described as a “dark speculum / of hate,” Jesus giving a sermon at a failing Kmart store. Baggott writes poems that encourage the reader to see how the world we live in talks to itself, how it plays inside our minds.
The collection is divided into three parts. The first is bejeweled with poems whose titles measure themselves in terms of how they fit into a sonnet, or “sonetto,” as Baggott calls them. “I Consider Doubting Thomas at Pet Kare in a Sonetto and a Half,” is the title of one poem with twenty-one lines. “My Enemy, Unloved, Has Only Stuck One of My Cheeks: An Interrupted Sonetto” has eighteen lines. As with most of the collection, we see Baggott thinking of religion, of her children, and of bodies, but in odd and new ways. In “Today—Bored, Puckered, Lonesome—I Would Like to Order a Russian Internet Bride: A Trisonetto,” which is one of the best poems in the collection, the poet considers ordering a bride, then changes her mind as, “today with traffic / shushing like a good river,” she decides she wants to be the one chosen, to be someone else’s Russian Internet Bride. She thinks of her own advertisement:
… we will eat
fatty edges, stewy stews, and drink vodka
with our Red Square wedding cake. Please hurry!
I ’m awaiting you breathlessly, sweet-kneed,
my corns freshly filed, my body shorn,
in *NEW ladies*, and I want to be made
new in the wedding procession —a train
of long black cars, ex-Soviet style …
The poem ends with the speaker’s heart—“delicate husk of something that once was”—beginning to beat again with love. Within the poem, we feel the need to be valued and chosen and the excitement of new love. The other poems in this section as well deal with contemporary cultural issues of the day, like technology, school shootings, and internet trolls.
The second section of Instructions: Abject & Fuming , however, whirls back into the past. Baggott uses these poems to comment on love and childbirth, while writing in a hybrid of contemporary language and Old English. The language, in turn, changes how we view the story. Sometimes it romanticizes the poem, drapes it in roses, and other times, it makes the whole thing absurd. “ Lover, ” she writes, “ You are no longer to eat with me in my chamber / on beef nights,” creating her image as speaker as one with petticoats and maids. Her voice also changes slightly in this section. She becomes a speaker who demands or gives advice, whereas in the other poems, her voice tends to be subtler. In “To My Lover, concerning a Cure for Barn Swallow Mites” she writes:
Reduce your mind to a thimble —
tiny tin bucket.
It holds enough milk
for only one dying bird,
which is enough, after all.
As in this poem, the best of this collection has images turning with Baggott’s associative language. In this one, the mind leaps into something that holds enough milk to save one dying bird. Baggott’s playfulness with language fosters the reader’s own imagination. It would be impossible to finish this collection without considering and loving altogether new things. And more than that, Baggott’s whimsical nature works with, not against, heavy issues, and in doing so, repositions our thinking. She points us towards contemporary spheres, like the state of politics, the state of violence, so that we enter those discussions with a wider, gentler understanding.
It is in the third and final collection, however, where Baggott really shines. She lets her voice be modernized again. Seemingly commenting on the previous chapter ’s old-time period in her poem “Today, There Is No Time, Only Squalling Squalor,” she writes, “I have no room / to complain. The children / have teeth…Our precancerous moles have been / dug out…We could live forever.” The poem stretches the speaker into eternity, no longer romanticized but totally real.
In the collection ’s tour de force, “Jesus Wants to Explain the Body to His Father,” Baggott imagines Jesus telling God what he loved and misses about his human body: the back of his knees, for example, and how memory attaches to scent, like how he could smell tapioca and remember his mother. It is an inventive, lovely poem that is, on the next page, almost completely erased, literally. In “Jesus Explain[s] His Father,” Baggott creates an erasure of her previous poem that shows God as “alone,” and “all glowing beard,” something altogether unlovely. In these poems—and the rest of her Christianity-inspired poetry, of which there are many—Baggott plays with the tension between faith and doubt. She makes the ground beneath our feet move.
Instructions, Abject & Fuming is a reflective, subverting, and exciting collection of poetry. The way Baggott thinks about bodies, families, and love challenges the reader to consider their relation to the world and people around them. We can no longer be like the woman Baggott writes about it one of her poems, “acting as if there aren’t worlds / within worlds, / as if inside the house that sits inside / your snow globe / there isn’t another / snow globe, being shaken by a woman / just like you / alone in her narrow bed.”
A Mississippi native, Meg Boyles currently lives in Orange, California, where she is an MFA candidate and fellow at Chapman University. She is the poetry editor of the interdisciplinary literary journal Anastamos. Her writing has appeared in several journals, most recently in B O D Y, The Cortland Review, the Web Weekly Feature of Verse Daily, and Apricity Press.