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Freak Show Valerie Bandura Black Lawrence Press 721 Pages; Print, $11.95

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In "Neither Here Nor There," the speaker, like poet Valerie Bandura herself, left the Soviet Union or "there" in the poem and landed "here," the label used for living in America. Some of the first "Freaks" we meet come from here.

as in, I came here with two suitcases and two    hundred dollarsand bought land here and had children here and

their home is here, as in, even after thirty years,people still ask where I'm from,

and when I say, From here, they say, No,where really?

and when I say, Here, they smile and say,No.

Bandura gives us a world in between that permeates this hard-hitting collection. Though these poems are not wholly autobiographical, they push forth a truth that like the freak at the freak show is hard to look at and yet hard to look away from. Jewish immigrants pack up their lives into one or two suitcases and run to save themselves. They sneak the Torah away hidden in strollers, and they dress young boys in old women's clothing to hide them in plain sight against those who want to destroy their sacred texts and their very lives.

The key to Bandura's poetic lure is her conversational style in the poems. The speaker is merely talking to us, telling his or her story rather than hawking us to "come one; come all." We trust this straightforward voice as it tells us "…With us, it was simple: / we were chased, so we ran." The voice brings us in; the images make us want to look away. It is a remarkable achievement on Bandura's part to play out this tightrope between style and content. She has us. She has us from the first poem, "Asking For It," and she's not about to let us go until all the freaks in the show have paraded out to horrify us and, perhaps, cause us to look at our own selves a bit differently.

Elsewhere the actual subject matter shifts from fleeing the USSR to a teenage girl, like Bandura's own sister who develops schizophrenia. The one sister in the second set of poems is the speaker, and she gives us an insider's view of a family dismantling while dealing with her other sister's mental illness. Just as in the poems on fleeing the Homeland, Bandura's images grab us by the chin as we try to turn our heads away.

I wish Jesus came to my sister on the    electroshock tableas he had to Saul on the road to Damascus,

watched the wad of Vaseline ooze from the blackrubber nodes they strapped to her head

as they tried to shock her bad braininto a good one, wish he'd been there

to watch her lip curl into a snarlover the gag of the wooden bit,

Shock becomes an important concept in the book, though it is more about shocking us as readers than showing us shock as it happens. The "freaks" in other poems in the book and their actions are meant to shock us. But we find ourselves still looking, eyes wide open, shocked as we may be.

Out come the conjoined twins. Out comes another malformed baby, such as the child in "The Mistake:"

a forehead long as a coffin,eyes on opposite sides like a fish,and where the mouth should have beenan open pit stopped by its tongue, a fist.

We want to turn away, but the last lines won't let us. The last lines in this poem give us the mother who hasn't yet seen the baby. The nurses hide the baby, but the mother sees the flurry of activity and whispers over "it," this freak, this child. What shocks, ultimately, is what the mother imagines. She thinks the mumblings from the nurses are because that baby, her baby, "must be the pure face of the divine."

With that last line, as with many of Bandura's last lines, she drops...


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