A review of Nancy Mitchell's The Out of Body Shop
Nancy Mitchell’s The Out of Body Shop, from Mad Hat Press, creeps like fog, and is humid, fat, and hot. It’s dangerous, Mitchell’ s America, haunted and beautiful, and crackling with wit, verve, and grit.
Framed by both the epigraph, “The key no longer turns the lock/of the mysterious door of bodies”, by Robert Desnos, and the opening poem “The Past”, Mitchell sets up Body Shop as an exploration of humanity’s frailty and the toxicity of past trauma. Acting as a kind of abstract Joseph Cornell box that encapsulates some of the major themes in the book, in the opening pages Mitchell offers up reminders of history’s toxicity, and cuts up language in a sparse tight lyric that showcases her craft.
If we have to bring it
up, we’ll need gloves
latex pulled elbow-
high. a mask--gas--safety
glasses. We’ll take it
outside, spread the decades
In the sun, burn
off the mold, the stink.
The danger of the past is illusory. At a glance you cannot see the mold, the asbestos, the egg sacs of black widow spiders in the corners of the boxes. The mold of regret, past indiscretions, and the everyday cruelty people inflict on each other, particularly family, can create a dangerous environment. It is the acceptance of the frailty of both human nature and the human body that Mitchell brings to The Out of Body Shop.
For much of The Out of Body Shop, Mitchell uses “I”, a personae, a masque, for most the poems. It’s effective; the “I” cuts to the chase, allows the poet to adopt masques to suit content. The speakers of the poems chase personal problems, face them, and sometimes even win, but in this sensual collection, death is always lingering. There’s a southern gothic charm to Mitchell’s collection. I’m not talking about affectation for dramatic flair; Mitchell’s south isn’t so much haunted by Civil War, Jesus, and colonialism, but rather generational poverty and white privilege, not to mention cancer, illness, opiate and meth abuse (on top of garden variety alcoholism), and a shrinking economy. It shows up in an incident report of sexual abuse, a drunken vehicular manslaughter, dead chickens, a pill taken by iphone light. Danger is pervasive, perhaps more so in the southern states, where globalism has left a hole in middle to high wage jobs.
The socio political landscape of dramatic monologues/personae poems is a hot issue in the poetry community: The Nation recently came under fire for a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee that the poetry community called out for appropriation and being ableist. The Nation issued an apology. Needless to say, people on both sides remain outraged. Mitchell’s got chops, and cuts up words to shape masques that speak for an America that is recovering from itself. She’s authentic, if you were to give the poems a rapt with your knuckles, it would hurt, because the poems are solid, hearty, and built to endure. As for how you, dear reader, will take the few examples of dialect or found language in Mitchell’s poems in Body Shop, that’s entirely dependent on your experience.
Not all of the poems are dramatic monologues. Early on in Body Shop, Mitchell offers up an incantation, of sorts, in “Prudence”, which is like both a Hesiod-like rural declarative and a folk spell. “Cow milk pailed/ in a copper bucket/ turns blue if stirred/with a silver spoon....To meet a drunkard/ before dawn will undo/ the curse of the ghost.” The danger here is the ghost or the past, or even starvation. Mitchell’s drawing on poetry’s ancient exigency: warning. Her lines serve up lines fat anxiety.
In fact, danger runs like barbed wire in this collection, and creates an unnerving emotional center. Even when Mitchell poems about nature the language is violent, as in “Riders of Squall” where the “punks lobbed pollen bombs” and “rogues ravaged the rhododendrons.” Mitchell reminds us that we live under a state of attack, even when at home, listening to the storms of climate change cascade over top middle class America that doesn’t stand a chance. In other places in Body Shop danger is blight, a son who seems to fail at life, a drunken father torching weeds, the circle of friends tightening to a noose. Pressure builds all around our little buttoned up worlds. Mitchell's poems act as sounding devices, pinging here and there at our weakest parts of ourselves.
One of the more ambitious poems would be the prose poem “Work”, which many in the industry would now dub “lyric essay”, or “creative non-fiction”. Place whatever label you wish to attach to “Work”, it’s a slice of working class life experienced by a privileged person who gets the job through a uncle and spends the summer working with folks from another world, economically and culturally. It isn’t a sermon, or a political mandate, but rather a poem that explores a speaker’s first experience as an outsider. It’s an empathetic experience, one the speaker didn’t always enjoy, but one that delivered an education, “...night after night <her> mind was blown.” The speakers co-workers are full up with folk wisdom and country street smarts which are imparted to “Miss Uppity...going off to college with a head full of nothing.” The factory workers know a lot more about living than the speaker, and it is clear from Mitchell’s tone that Miss Uppity, on her summer vacation of sorts, is seen as a fool. It’s also a frank encapsulation of how people who live in rural generational poverty talk, share wisdom and hope. Mitchell leaves the reader with the sound of metal against metal “dinning” in our ears and the “funk of burnt plastic” in our nose, reminding us that much of America works and lives in conditions that drown our bodies in deafening noise and harmful chemicals, and those workers do not get to leave their environment when it becomes too much. They are trapped there, and build lives there. Life goes on.
Love poems also bubble up in Body Shop, in “Praise” Mitchell shows off her spare lyric sensibilities. “Praise” smacks with morning sweetness, a sensual erotic flair that teases and remains earnest. “You be my Sunday/ morning hot/butter-swirled/syrup-drizzled/ whipped-cream-/dollop-topped/hand-scratch-made/pancake/ I be your coffee cup/Starbuck.” What’s sexier than breakfast with your lover? Later in the book, Mitchell offers up “Then, Again”, a poem about an ongoing affair where the couple is more concerned about an illegally parked car rather than discovery, the snow flurries coming down in the dark winter. Even in love, caution must be taken.
Stylistically, Mitchell's masterful at line breaks, and rhyme, both slant and true. She draws influence from all over, including dialect and jargon. The final line of “Ashes”, “what mote now/and in what eye?” echoes William Blake’s “The Tyger”, and she whips up sonic tropes for elegiac use, the Romantic “O”, in “How Reckoned”. In the blistering “Black Bittern”, Mitchell whips cracks rage and recovery and relapse, springing tragedy over crisp lines: “and there’s Katie, our baby/at her tit, back lit with some goddamn golden/shaft of light beaming through the pin oak trees...So--here I am--hunkered down/on a tree stump, sunk in the stink of the river/muck and reeds. When the tide turns I’ll punch/ the needle in....” One of the more memorable lyrics is “Ah in Father”, a short lyric, that among other things captures one of toxic masculinity most challenging problems, and does so by simply playing with rhyme and syllable. The final line “ah dah! farther god, farther” not only puns the sound of the word father, it nails the wandering, narcissistic, restlessness that causes many fathers to not be present in their family's lives, if present at all. Farther. How far can you go? In many ways it is Death of Salesman spun up in a line. We have both Willy and Biff. Neither wishing to be held down at home, eager to chase, chase, chase, neither one of them every bothering to question the affects of such constant restlessness. For them, and in the poem, the urge to wander, to be great, to be all ego, is as problematic as booze.
Ghosts haunt Mitchell’s America; they appear in conjunction with smells, giving a whole new dimension to sense memory. Ghosts are also a perfect trope to express toxic history. Sexual abuse comes back in “Why I’m Here” and serves to both echo earlier motifs, and also to explore the spiritual/emotional damage, “after/ which the connection to the body/ is intrinsically damaged--think/ electrical cord, think frayed.” These lines connect to many of the previous poems, and to some later poems, giving gravity, if you will, to a study of a disassociation that Mitchell has also been undergoing throughout the course of the collection. There are times when the body and the animus are not aligned. Mitchell knows its a physical condition as well as a spiritual/emotional condition. The body responds to the spirit and the spirit responds to the body. In “While in the Body”, this motif comes into smashing contact with Mitchell’s lyricism. It’s a poem from the POV of an unborn child “<u>nder a furled rib/cage like a lover.” This isn’t a precious moment; this kid is street wise; the baby “spooned the heart,/and bided my time.” And of course, the baby is also a metaphor for our own delicious self destructive sweets that we feed ourselves: Mitchell’s already covered the big ones, booze, sex, but also power over others, jealousy, the oh so casual way families devour each other’s spirits.
The Out of Body Shop is organized to tell a kind of story. I suppose, to some degree, all poetry books accomplish narrative. Mitchell begins in North Carolina and half way through the book, one of the speakers moves to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Throughout, Mitchell juxtaposes sensuality with danger, and she also leads the reader along, giving us a poem about marriage, then an affair, then a death, then a move, a new lover, then back to hell with domestic dissonance. She ends the collection by bringing the toxic past back. Mitchell reminds us that it's women and children who bear the brunt of modernity’s banal evil. “You come back. Dishes dirty/themselves and pile the sink....clothes/ fling themselves like wives/ on husband’s funeral pyres.” The man is hardly a sketch, and we don’t need his details, Mitchell’s already given us the man with a thousand faces, the brute. In the end, the speaker and children flee, “....I gather the car keys...Shush the children,/lure them with Peeps.” The cruel ending resonates. Mitchell might as well be talking about white nationalism, incel culture, the faux patriotism that mixes so well with misogyny and racism. And that’s just it, dear reader, she is. In America, past failures are either lied about, covered up, or beaten up. And I suppose it’s all the same, but among that violence, life goes on, joy can be found, and hope is just around the corner.
Stephen Scott Whitaker is an award winning educator, writer, and poet. His fiction and poems have appeared in numerous journals including Oxford Poetry, and Anderbo. He is the author of four chapbooks of poetry. Interact with him on Twitter