Review of Catechesis: a postpastoral, by Lindsay Lusby
Lindsay Lusby’s Catechesis:A Postpastoral, winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize for poetry, emits a Gothic joy, a happy craft celebrating death, fairy tales, and even horror films, all while exploring a haunting emotional landscape. Lusby’s visual poems are largely collage and cut ups, but also include erasure, that not only shape the reader’s experience by acting as primers for her equally exquisite textual poems, but also fill the white space between poems, creating tension, and curiosity. In Catechesis, Lusby not only subverts liturgical Catechesis via creating her own transfiguration narratives and imagery, but she also offers a bad-ass tribute to Silence of the Lambs and Alien, two thrillers featuring female protagonists pitted against evil. Whether composing “traditional” poems, or crafting visual poetry, Lusby deftly creates, deconstructs, and bridges high and low culture.
Catechesis reads like an apocalyptic fairy tale deconstructing fatherhood, motherhood, and most importantly, girlhood. Three sections in the collection are entitled Woman of the Apocalypse, in which the girls of the poems are rarely all flesh, but rather dreamy composites of flesh and wood and hoof and apple. Haunting and haunted, the protagonists of these three sections struggle in a Gothic wonderland. Here, Lusby not only creates her own fairy tales but also re imagines Christian transfiguration. These girls are hurt by love. There’s a savagery in Catechesis, a familial one, where love is equated with death, and where sacrifice is the ultimate expression of love. The girl in the first Woman of the Apocalypse section has been turned into a tree by her possessive father, and later yearns to be a bird, but by the end of the section is dragged back to the sawmill to the “swarming rattle/ of locusts.” In the second Woman of the Apocalypse section, Lusby offers readers a “Girl with Cloven Feet” with a “hunger for green things” and a “hunger for knowings”, and the final section features a “Girl who Gave Birth to an Apple”. The girls of these sections might be the same girl, or they might be different girls, unnamed, anonymous, universal. Either way, Lusby moves the reader through different ages of girlhood. The possessive father wants his daughter to “ripen”. The girl with cloven feet has a heart that a “salt-lick”, while the girl who gave birth to an apple will “play dead”. Psycho-sexual, these poems ache with sorrow, and with love. There sparseness of the verse recalls slashes and cuts across the body, breaks in the forest, and swings of the axe.
In the other two sections of Catechesis, Lusby marries high and low culture, by mining horror-thrillers for lines and content. In Lamb of Law and The Dragon, Lusby has composed visual poems to go along with textual poems to explore motherhood. Catechesis deconstructs the alpha predators of Silence of the Lambs and Alien, Hannibal Lecter, the alien (designed by HR Geiger), and the evil cyborg, Ash (also of Alien). They have become poems and incantations about motherhood, where the earth herself is often the ultimate alpha-predator, the murderous mother out of nightmare and fairy tale. There’s a wonderful synthesis that happens when one reads the Silence of the Lamb and Alien poems. Lusby bridges these films by titling the cycle of Alien poems, The Dragon. In Lecterverse, the Dragon is the Red Dragon, the killer from the prequel to Silence of the Lambs, where Lecter helps the FBI catch a killer called the Red Dragon. HR Gieger’s Alien design for the Ridley Scott film is dragonesque; the monster spits a creepy second mouth rather than fire, and burns with acid instead of flame. At once they are poems about Lecter and about the crew of the Nostromo, but also feathery poems about death, mothers, the futility of flesh, and the slippery present, which is already gone. They are also movies that focus on transformation. Both predators are evolving before the protagonists eyes. In these cinematic sections, the visual poetry literally creates a pastoral, albeit one comprised of not only flowers, but also of bones and teeth; they are even populated with moths and lambs. Lusby’s compositions delight and disrupt. They prime the reader for the poems ahead, as well stand alone as curiosities and oddities. They demand attention, and reader, I’m betting you’ll want to give it.
One of Lusby’s more striking examples of visual poetry is “shooting star plate 142” where the death head moths from Silence of the Lambs flutter at the top of the page. However, they are moths made of bones, of maps, and the faint marks of an art pen, blood red no less. The Shooting Star flower, striking in its own right, recalls a monster; it’s six petal beaks could easily be imagined as the mouths of a Geiger creature, or a Lovecraftian kaiju. The first line, “in open woods”, places the reader once again in the fairy tale woods. The second line, “bear striking bloom” is both violent and contradictory. Is the bear destroying a shooting star flower, or is the bloom blood flowering on the neck of its prey? The poem ends with “In meadows/ the star rises/simple and entire//they are marked with red.” The poem also includes a fortune cookie ribbon just under the poem’s text, and the whole composition recalls the cover of a magazine, or a comic, in its arrangement. The blood red square of text, plus the fortune, is located where the magazine or comic logo or issue number would appear. The moths fly up the left side towards the right, and the Shooting Star flower rises up the far right, both enchanting and hypnotizing in detail and line and shape.
Lusby’s synthesis of pop culture into a spell book of Gothic pop lyrics feels, at times, like the cinematic spaces from the source material. The dank wet basements and woods of Silence of the Lambs is palpable in Catechesis, as is the way outer space felt both claustrophobic and terrifyingly open in Ridley Scott’s Alien. This is echoed in such lines as in “If a girl lay shoulder to shoulder/with the road/ she will play dead: head slung backwise,/tongue out like entrails.” And “my unmothered bird,//dropped from the sky/like a millstone.”
The poems of Catechesis: a Postpastoral evoke and invoke. A collection that explores the violence of change, Lusby's text and visual poems invite the reader to return again and again to admire and wonder at their strangeness. Like nature’s most violent metamorphoses and nature's most dangerous predators, Catechesis hypnotizes with beauty.
Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the managing editor for The Broadkill Review. Whitaker is a teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, an educator, and a grant writer. His poems have appeared in Oxford Poetry, The Scores, Grub Street, and Anderbo, among other journals. He is the author of four chapbooks of poetry and a broadside from Broadsided Press. Mulch, his novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press in 2020.