Five Bullet Review
Mysterious Acts by My People
by Valerie Wetlaufer
Sibling Rivalry Press
Reviewed by Samantha Futhey
Valerie Wetlaufer’s poetry collection Mysterious Acts by My People questions the notion of mind over body, and unfolds mysterious acts tragic in their simplicity and beautiful in their grace. The power of the feminine dominates the collection as the speaker winds her way through emerging homosexuality, barriers to companionship, and how to exist in a violent, but passionate world.
o Many of the poems reveal the speaker’s emerging sexuality and portray violence inherent in sex: “Solitary Vice,” “Tender :: Throb,” and “The Pupil.” Wetlaufer is not afraid to be graphic with sex, displaying the consequences of simultaneous pain and pleasure in “Tender :: Throb:” “She does me from behind,/ her free hand tangled/ in my hair, so that my face/ points to the ceiling.”
o One fascinating theme in this book is the emphasis on homosexual love and the world of being a lesbian in this country. Poems such as “Solitary Vice” shows the speaker’s developing homosexuality and unrequited loves. “Tornado Alley” meshes the speaker’s voice with text from an anti-gay pamphlet, to create a multi-layered effect amplified by the shifting lines and use of empty space that strikes home the negative societal perceptions facing homosexuals: “A boy or a girl is only a boy or a girl/ until someone tells them otherwise./ Endorsing these lifestyles to the young/ of tender age confuses them and causes violence.// These were the longest years of our lives.”
o The central section of the book, Scent of Shatter, brings to life Mary Sweeny, an institutionalized Midwestern woman who was known as a “window-smasher.” Wetlaufer explores the murky territory of psychosis, weaving research with imagination and making this section of the collection the most memorable and evocative. In the poem “The Mind’s Boil,” the lines sprawled across the page indicate Sweeny’s underlying repression, rage, and her struggle in a world dominated by men: “the mind’s boil/strung high/follow orders/I escaped by smashing.”
o Lines like this: “In Florida, it rains like God hates you” (from “Love Poem in Three Parts”). Or the hurt of these lines, from “Twins:” “They will wear braces and casts to straighten their limbs/ & the stares from other mothers in the street: unbearable.// Only one of them will live. I have to choose.” Wetlaufer’s poems brim with lines meant to sting, alarm, and provoke.
o Bird imagery, especially bones, reveals the speaker’s obsession with the body and preoccupation with distance. In poems such as “Anatomy,” “More Evidence for the Dinosaur/Bird Link,” “Sweet Albatross,” and “Avian Nightmare,” birds flit throughout the collection, the language twisted into beautifully haunted phrases. In “Sweet Albatross,” Wetlaufer combines body imagery with the haunting connotations of the albatross (though with possible irony calls the bird “sweet” in the title): “O diver, I will use your wingbones/ to tattoo ceremony onto my skin.”
Favorite poem: “Love Poem in Three Parts”
Though many of the poems in this collection startle with the evocation of violence and imprisonment in the case of Mary Sweeny, “Love Poem in Three Parts” offers a space for tenderness in the midst of misunderstanding. Not only does this poem include the expertly crafted line mentioned previously, but in the third stanza/section the speaker brings home her female lover to meet the parents in a scene tense with awkwardness. Wetlaufer writes about the father observing the lover: “He’s trying not to regard your nipples. We/ were caught in the rain. Your thin cotton shirt/ is soggy and transparent.” The mother brings her own obvious discomfort to the table: “You’re so pretty. It’s what my mother can’t stop/ saying. She’s thinking about those glossy girls/ in magazines I kissed until the pages were limp/ & newsprint showed through the faces.” The line breaks and use of caesura builds the tension, particularly in this stanza. But the poem ends delicately, in one of the most lovely images in the collection: “You dip your face/ into me like a kitten drinking milk, your whole face/ disappearing into the shallow bowl.” Fusing elements of sexuality, confusion, and body imagery, this poem represents the difficulties of the speaker, but gives a sense of hope that many of the other poems dodge.