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Pleiades: Review of The Atheist Wore Goat Silk

by Alyse Bensel

Anna Journey’s The Atheist Wore Goat Silk opens with the manifesto-like poem “Upon Asking the Cashier at Kroger to Scan That Old Tattoo of a Barcode on My Forearm.” The speaker learns, years later, that after a night of drunken decisions leading to getting a barcode tattoo at nineteen, she is, in fact, a sweet potato. The speaker remembers these events of her youth, when she “didn’t know my body // would soften beneath the lines.” The poem concludes with the lush but biting couplets:

I’ve always been sweet but slightly
twisted, I’ve always been

waiting to disappear like this,
bite by bite, into someone’s mouth.

Conflicting desires between being a sensual creature and having a pervasive anxiety of being consumed by others percolate throughout this collection. The material—and its historical embodiments—are forever at stake in the speaker’s mind. For example, in “Accidental Theft: Crazy Quilt,” the speaker realizes that she is in possession of her ex-lover’s family heirloom. Torn between wanting to return the quilt and keeping it, the speaker speculates on the reasons why it was left behind: “But maybe / you’ve left me // this quilt on purpose so I’ll never / get to sleep.” The quilt begins to take on more fleshy qualities (“like scar tissue exposed”), reminding the speaker of the scarring the relationship has left.

Not only exes haunt in their remnants; the speaker’s family also occupies significant space in the collection. Among the central image of the bedroom, the speaker slips into bed with a lover, but her family also returns from a difficult past. The grandmother awakes at night to find the other side of the bed empty in “Bloodlines.” This poem recounts the actions of the grandfather, who is on another drunken escapade, and whom the grandmother must save. With these memories always fresh, the speaker constantly attempts to disentangle from her familial heritage in Mississippi. She is left to sift through what her family has left behind as well as the grief that accompanies such loss. The collection’s title poem reminds her of this pervasive loss when she contemplates a silk-spinning goat: “That webbed dress / sticking to my chest, the grandfather / clock, all over the bedroom walls like a past / that drags everything with it.” The past, along with place, is inescapable as it takes up space in emptied rooms.

Much like the claustrophobia of the bedroom and of family, hot places attempt to tie the speaker down, including Texas, where the speaker lives for a time. In the sardonic and desperate “Reasons Why Licking the Anesthetic Backs of Waxy Monkey Tree Frogs Could’ve Made Me Stand Living in Texas,” the speaker lists a tumbling series of reasons, including “because in a Texas heat my breath // on the pillow is the equator because insomnia / the hottest spot throbs in both ears.” Or, in “Past Life Evaporation Riff,” the speaker adopts a self-reflexive “you” as she remembers life in Houston after relocating to the West Coast: “You feel the dragged // ghost of its humidity tapping / that code you can’t break.” The relentless heat serves as a reminder of the moment of respite when the speaker gets out of bed, “Your body // just cool enough / to wade in, walk through.” These moments of relief, however, are temporary, unable to last in the constant yet uncontrollable weather.

Journey grapples with expectations placed upon the body: the body trying to exist and resist oppressive environments and the body in conjunction with a weighty familial lineage. She draws strong but jagged lines between self and the past, like in “I Sip an Herbal Tea Called Gypsy Cold Care,” where the speaker conflates an image of her ancestor and the author of the tea’s recipe crossing the Atlantic, “the old ghost leaving / her herbals behind her as she steps / into the boat” and drops into the ocean “the scrawled recipe // she once stuffed into a bottle.” These pressures of heritage, contained within tightly woven poems, generate tension in this weighty collection…

 

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