- Oldest Mortal Myth by Joanna Pearson
From the moment that Joanna Pearson first describes the Minotaur—
He bears his heavy cow headabove shivering human kneesand mollusk-soft genitals. [End Page 278]
—it is apparent that this is going to be a book that brings a sense of tangible physical vulnerability to the legendary—a book that lays hands on the untouchable. From Leda, Pasiphaë, and Ariadne to the wives of carnival denizens, from gunshot victims to people beset with unusual neurological disorders (Pearson is also a doctor, and she writes about the body like someone who has taken it apart and put it back together with her own hands)—the subjects of these poems are extreme, mythic, even ghastly, but the treatment of them is humanizing and tactile. When Pearson imagines what it’s like to be married to a man who suppresses his gag reflex for circus profit (“The Sword Swallower’s Wife”), she writes, “There were no carrots left for the roast beef; even the curtain rod / was slimy.” The sense of touch in this book is pervasive; it tricks us all into being haptic readers.
When Pearson takes as her subject an outwardly ordinary person, that person is often being presented at a moment of contact—messy, awkward physical contact—with something semi-human, or unimaginable. She writes about women who are linked, by marriage or motherhood, to monstrosities. In “The Mother Of The Conjoined Twins Explains,” the title character, reflecting on her pregnancy, says:
I heard their private whisperings, not the normal deep-sea language of twins, but something tense, high pitched like dolphins’ cries against tuna nets.
Pearson is willing to write about subjects which some people might be afraid to even contemplate—molar pregnancies, wounded testicles—and to acknowledge that there is sometimes a great deal of awful humor in those subjects. There’s something about the nets being tuna nets in particular; the image is overprecise to the point of being surprising, borderline scurrilous, and even invites uncomfortable laughter. The way in which the sound of “against” rubs up against “nets” further ensnares the reader in the same lines with the unborn twins.
In another instance of the ordinary coming into contact with the disturbing, in “The Smallest Woman in the World,” two teenage girls have fled from an aging dwarf in a carnival freak show to hook up with long-haired boys:
The four of us are coupled, making out dank scent of cow, faint dung, that hay-filled must. We feel the shrinking power of new lust distill us down and Thumbelina us.
These tall teenage girls, whose tallness embarasses them (“a pair of girls who look like Olive Oyl”) find that their physical closeness to the men [End Page 279] turns them into Thumbelinas. The disturbing realization Pearson brings about here is that part of the traditional feminine desire for physical love is a desire to be shrunken, “distill”[ed], made smaller. It’s unsettlingly done, but again, it’s not without humor. That surprising line break (“making out / dank scent of cow”) does a lot to make us laugh even as we are being disturbed, and so does “faint dung.” The girls may be weak-kneed (faint) with hormones, but the situation is barnyard-pungent.
Pearson, as a doctor, knows how good people are at living in denial of their own physical frailty, and she doesn’t exempt herself from that particular vanity. In the title poem, “Anatomy,” Pearson moves from cutting up bodies in class to touching the body of a lover, reflecting on her new knowledge of bones as she holds his wrist. The still-warm relationship she describes is untroubled by the bodies: “dead people wearing frozen faces / they are nothing—not to us, not to our promises.” The Oldest Mortal Myth of the title turns out to be “permanence through words,” the poet’s illusion that he or she may stave off death and achieve immortality through writing. That this “myth” appears in a poem about cadavers shows us how few illusions this poet...