Buzzed Books #52 by Amy Watkins
Anna Journey’s The Atheist Wore Goat Silk
Much art is made to elevate mundane things. Think of Georgia O’Keefe demanding that we look again at humble flowers. Think of Neruda gazing at a slice of lemon and seeing a cathedral window, or finding the poetry in a suit or a pair of socks. An artist like Neruda or O’Keefe makes the mundane sacred. Anna Journey’s new collection, The Atheist Wore Goat Silk (LSU Press, 2017), is full of poems about vulgar, even ridiculous things, but what is extraordinary about them is not that they are holy, but that they express what is so naturally strange about the human condition.
One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Dildophone,” about a joke musical instrument “played” onstage by a prank-loving musician ex-boyfriend. The dildophone (a sex toy taped to a funnel) may not be an everyday object, but if we use the second definition of “common”–“showing a lack of taste and refinement”–it’s about as common as it gets:
the banjo and mandolin players, red-
bearded and wiggling and he swung
the dildophone’s cock. For a solo
he’d jack off the shaft as if to alter
the instrument’s pitch.
Journey doesn’t pretend that the dildophone is anything more profound than a vulgar sight gag, but she uses its vulgarity as a starting place for a meditation on abuse, autonomy, and art:
They didn’t know
how his mother slapped him when,
at fifteen, he traded his violin
for an electric bass, or the way she’d pop
another codeine and make him–three
years old–balance a pencil against
the spruce body of a toy fiddle
for an hour each day so he could practice
holding a bow […]. Sometimes
if she looked away, he’d start to hum
and feel the body resonate.
The dildophone is elevated by what it represents to the poet: personal and artistic freedom. She doesn’t claim that the dildophone is sacred, but she forcefully shows us that a thing can be both vulgar and significant.
The book is full of poems like this: poems about vulgar, absurd objects and experiences imbued with personal significance. For instance, two separate poems about a prom corsage made of fried chicken drumsticks–a novelty spotted online–use the bizarre object as occasion to ponder maturity, aging, and death. In the first of these, “Fried Chicken Prom Corsage: Ode to My Thirties,” she likens the object to the “brutal extravagance” she possessed as a younger woman. She writes, “I should throw / myself a party for having / even survived.” In a poem about the ordinary experience of receiving maternal advice, she uses the ridiculous image of hanging a slice of bread out of her mouth while chopping onions to begin a litany of loss:
[…] the white oak swamp’s
wafts of methane, the idling pickups, the fuck yous
I spat and left hanging in the air. The man
I left there. Or the flare of my dead
closeted grandfather–brandy cobbling
the bottom of his breath as he crawled out
of his ground-floor window for weeks
to wander the neighborhood after his lover’s
suicide, drunk, muttering, still wearing
Bob’s tweed hat.
Each poem launches from its triggering image into something bigger, more significant, yet it remains firmly grounded by that image.
On the whole, the poems are original, personal, and funny. Because they are so specific and because they often include something truly weird, they also feel absolutely honest in a you-can’t-make-this-shit-up kind of way. The world Journey writes is strange, but recognizable.
Pair with: the dildophoner’s favorite beverage, a common rum and Coke.
Amy Watkins (Episodes 124, 161, 164, 192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.