In this collection, which is really a poetry memoir or lengthy poetry sequence, the speaker develops her narrative of a tormented childhood and adolescence, psychological breakdowns, and ongoing struggle in a more "normal" present.  The poems are labeled only by section, of which there are four, and are separated simply by their spacing on the page.  Section 1, "Cuckoo," reveals the origin of the poet's "life as a doll": "After my mother hit the back /of my head with the bat's /sweet spot, light cried / its way out of my body. . . . I was  . . . a doll carved out of a dog's bones . . . my life as a doll / was a life of waiting" (4-5).  Mother was an abusive alcoholic (there seems to be no father ever on the scene).

Section 2, "An Itty Bitty Ditty," concentrates on the speaker's adolescence, which was one of promiscuity and parental neglect.  "Pretty, said Mom / on the night of the prom . . . Pretty, she said as though / I were a ditty, an itty bitty / ditty not even God would pity. / Ditty gone silent.  ditty gone numb" (27).  At age 19 the poet/speaker "took a razor to my wrists"; she was pregnant with an unwanted child at age 20: "Cold walked into me and through me . . . How do you undo someone who's / already undone?" (32-33).

In the third section of the collection,"Tra-la-la," we are whisked ahead to the time when the poet is married and has an 11- year-old son.  At her son's birthday she has a psychotic break and her husband brings her to the hospital.  "When I / stepped out of the car, I sang, /  "tra-la-la," as if I were / Cinderella going to an enchanted ball"  (41).  This section is concerned with her institutionalization and psychotherapy with "Dr. Flesh."  The poet is not enamored of Dr. Flesh, who puts her on display for a group of students "who wanted to be  / just like Dr. Flesh  / who was special, / very very special / unlike me" (43) and who yawns during therapy sessions (44).  The poet also satirizes her diagnostic workup -- a 500 question survey:"Do you like golf? it asked / and when I wrote 'no' / I was diagnosed" (49).  The final section, "O Healing Go Deep," is both a railing and incomprehension about the way the poet's mother treated her, and a plea for sanity: "enough I say of my careening / craziness, of being /a thing in thin wind / running away from Mother" (59).


Kirschner is a published poet and these are striking poems.  One has to assume that Elizabeth Kirschner is the speaker in these poems, since she is addressed as Elizabeth in several, and since the poetry so vividly details events and the speaker's inner life.  This is not an easy collection to read but it is really a tour de force of imagery, vitality, and an evocation of complex emotions.  The format varies.  Some poems are composed of straightforward stanzas, some use indented line sequences, some are in couplets.  There are many interior rhymes and slant rhymes, repetitions, and startling phrases.  Interestingly, the back cover states that Kirschner "studies with the Boston ballet" and has collaborated with many composers. There is certainly a strong musicality in her poems.  Movement played a role in her recovery-- she mentions a rhythm class in the hospital: "I turned round and round, shimmied my hips, hopped from / foot-to-foot. // We were a groovy gang and for a purebred moment I felt / joy" (50).

In addition to providing insight about childhood abuse and its long-lasting effects, the collection raises questions about psychiatric labels and treatment while at the same time recognizing the reality of a chaotic emotional life.  In some respects, the work reminds me of Susanna Kaysen's memoir, Girl, Interrupted (see this database).


Kirschner was named Maine's Literary Fellow (2010) for this book.


Autumn House Press

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