JEANNINE HALL GAILEY Reviews
Every Dress a Decision by Elizabeth Austen
(Blue Begonia Press, Selah, WA, 2011)
Seattle poet Elizabeth Austen’s first book, Every Dress a Decision, tackles serious subject matter in a way you might not expect from the title: she grapples with family betrayals, her troubled belief (or lack of) in God, childlessness, the endless ebb and flow of the complications of romance. Her bravery in the face of every dilemma characterizes her poems, which resound with the decision to say, each time, “the world is worth the risk.”
In her poetry, Austen confronts tough questions of wrestling with the spirit, with broken family relationships, with her body and the world, with aplomb and openness. For instance, in the poem “Problem Was,” Austen conversationally shares the circumstances of a fight mid-relationship, and outlines not only her unique habit of falling asleep while in an argument, but in the form of the poem and the details she includes, intimates clues about the speaker’s relationships:
“The more he talked—
his litany of needs, the catalog of my flaws, the chronicle
of his disappointments—it became a kind of lullaby, soporific,
setting me adrift on the tundra…”
Her poem is funny, but also surprisingly vulnerable, revealing a speaker restless and impatient with intimacy and domesticity.
The most resonant poem in the book for me was the long poem, “The Girl Who Goes Alone,” a kind of manifesto for adventurous women who dare to stand up to the status quo, which I quoted in the first paragraph of this review. The poem describes dangers from childhood predators to wild animals on a mountain hike, and its tone reflects the overall movement of the book, the movement from female childhood vulnerability to adult independence and courage:
“Tell someone you’re going into the woods alone
and they’ll story your head with trailside cougar attacks,
cave dwelling misogynists, lightning strikes, forest fires, flash floods,
and psychopaths with a sixth sense for a woman alone in a tent…
…The message is clear: girls must be chaperoned.
…The girl who goes alone says with her body
the world is worth the risk.”
She also has another manifesto, reflecting this same sentiment…call it the feminist toddler manifesto, in “She, at Two:”
“…and I want her
to survive. That girl—
who reaches and takes, erupts
in glee as she shakes her fistful
of bone and meat.”
Though her book is haunted by both Holy Virgins and the ghost of Virginia Woolf, you can feel Austen searching for a new kind of archetype for women, more feral and less conventional, their dresses about to go up in flames.
Jeannine Hall Gailey is the new Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington, and the author of Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books, 2006) and She Returns to the Floating World (Kitsune Books, 2011.) Her third book, Unexplained Fevers, is forthcoming with Kitsune Books in 2013.