Every Dress a Decision
By Elizabeth Austen
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk
Blue Begonia Press, June 2011
perfect bound, 77 pp., $15
Some people look for a narrative arc in a book of poems. You will find one here. If, as Flannery O’Connor recommends, you want to get the suspense over with so you can focus on the spiritual impact, emotional resonance, and sheer beauty of this book, you can read the poem “Brother” and the series of short, fragment-like clues called “What Is Known” strewn throughout the book like loose pearls scattered when the strand broke. If you need to find a dead body, read “For You, First Through the Door,” in honor of police who found one in a Prague apartment. If you need a “happy ending,” read “Not My Brother,” so no one has to die alone.
Or you can read this book straight through, start to finish, as I did, standing in the kitchen immediately after opening the package from Blue Begonia Press. And straight through again in the back yard in the shade of a sweetgum tree the next day. And again at the picnic table, taking notes. Every Dress a Decision, by Elizabeth Austen, is a remarkable book, full of the peace that passeth understanding, alongside the usual suspects: confusion, guilt, grief, frustration, joy, hilarity, passion, and all things human.
This is a book of baptism by fire (“House Fire”) and baptism by total immersion (on “Shi Shi Beach”). It is a record of one woman’s search for a lost self and her decision, daily, to find or be a new self, as healed or whole as any of us might be who take the same fearful walkabout.
I say “walkabout” due to Austen’s bio at the back of the book: “A six-month solo walkabout in the Andes region of South America led her to focus exclusively on poetry.” Her other interest was theatre, and several poems follow that route, with titles like “Dramatis Personae” and “Scene: Hotel, Interior.”
I say “fearful” because traversing the earth alone is scary, as is life in general for “The Girl Who Goes Alone,” a fine ramble of a poem and title poem of a previous chapbook. This poem acknowledges fear and the frequent supposition that we do brave things without fear, though where would be the courage in that?
who goes alone
is always afraid, always negotiating to keep the voices
in her head at a manageable pitch of hysteria.
It’s even brave, these days, to say “hysteria” in a poem, especially one forging a strong female identity after a period of confusion—“so foreign, even to myself.”
In the poem “Museum Prayer,” Austen asks a crucial question: “What fiasco did our obedience, / our silence, ever fend off?” This might be the quintessential woman’s question, posed by any woman expected to be a good girl, docile and obedient, and silent in deference to a man or to keep some crime or indiscretion a secret. But Austen asks it on behalf of all of us, requesting that an absent God return, to “Do again what we cannot. / Believe in us.”
She does this again in “Humans,” asking the universal uncapitalized, unpunctuated question “why am I confused about all important things,” where she also states, humbly, “I understand none of the beautiful things.” But she sees them, gasping and gaping.
Though there is suffering here, this is an astonishingly uplifting book. In “Consequence,” Austen identifies with but does not imitate Virginia Woolf (rocks, suicide, water). “I have only enough courage to carry on,” says Austen, and any of us might connect to that.
In other water poems, there is buoyancy. “More, One More” takes place at ocean’s edge before “one more / saltwater swim” and the speaker’s comic warning not to stand too near her at the end or be dragged along by her conviction “to praise this world / by hauling what I can into the next.”
And that’s a spiritual conviction by someone who has left God behind, “since we sexed you male,” but still speaks to “him” (as an uncapitalized “you”) in “Vestigial God, I,” “Vestigial God, II,” and other poems, including “Prayer for Relief,” which is asking God for the ability to write a funny poem.
You will indeed find comic relief in this book and joy aplenty. “In Praise of Orality” is “an infant manifesto” about knowing by tasting, and “Her, at Two” is, likewise, a toddler/feminist manifesto.
These joyful poems are written by a childless woman (“Nobody’s Mother”) who understands her place in various societies as a result of such a label and who appreciates a little boy on the elevator (“Between Floors”) who sees “the possible mother / still alive in my face.”
In the face of so much loss, Elizabeth Austen offers so much praise. She may ask “who am I / to forgive,” but I look to her as the expert on how to accept. In Every Dress a Decision, nakedly honest, “she fills the dress with her decision” in every poem.
In case the river calls me, I carry
two stones. But this is a lie, Virginia,
I have only enough courage to carry on.
These stones are nothing more
than pocketed threats. I am not
anyone I expected to be.
Give me some message, dreamer,
or give me back my sleep. Are we here
by grace? Virginia, you knew
the consequences of silence.
Visit Blue Begonia Press on the web.
Kathleen Kirk is a poet and fiction writer whose work appears online and in print in Eclectica, blossombones, Poems & Plays, Poetry East, and elsewhere. She has three poetry chapbooks—Selected Roles, Broken Sonnets, and Living on the Earth. A past editor and reviewer for RHINO, Kirk is poetry editor for Escape Into Life. She blogs eight days a week at Wait! I Have a Blog?!
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