The Doors of the Body
By Mary Alexandra Agner
Published by Mayapple Press, 32 pages
Reviewed by Francesca Forrest
This collection explores the experience of womanhood through twenty-two distinctly voiced poems. There are voices out of classical and more recent literature and history, as well as voices from folk and fairytale tradition. Two poems, “The Doors of the Body” and “The Harvest I Desire,” speak in entirely new voices.
“The Doors of the Body” has a strong cadence and rhyme that is powerful and yet not domineering:
Scrape bone to bone above your heart,
your cloak of skin will spread apart,
the pin which held it tinkling to the floor.
Make your way through the fourth door.
As this stanza hints, the poem is a gradual divestment, as the woman sheds all exterior, and then interior, identifiers—jewelry, hair, skin, bones—leading to an ominous conclusion.
“The Harvest I Desire” uses repeated rhyme to build an intensity that culminates in lovemaking:
At first I thought you’d dropped
the apple, bitten to the white,
in favor of those trapped at ladder-height.
Instead, you need two hands to hold mine tight.
You kiss me with such urgency
I know that from this tree
I too can take the harvest I desire.
The poems that speak to us in voices we know from history or literature do so in a way that’s fresh and surprising. Antigone, Oedipus’s daughter, speaks to her father in “Growing Up in Thebes”:
You shuffle in a greater darkness,
and begs him, like so many attention-starved daughters,
. . . “Look, Daddy, look
Penelope, the long-suffering wife of Odysseus, speaks in two poems, “Yarns” and “Like Father, Like Son.” Circe describes a gender-bending transformation in “Unhappy in Her Body,” and sensual Helen of Troy trades in husbands and lovers when they cease to dance in “Ellen in Egypt.” This one has a delicious ending, with multiple meanings carried by so few words:
… Achilles promised me
in Egypt we would dance and so I left
with him. Moonlit Nile nights, cats
underfoot, until I lay him down,
fine feet still, after one last dip.
Then there are the heroic women out of classical history. Telesilla of Argos, a poet who led an army of women and slaves to defeat the invading Spartans after the Argive men had been killed in battle, gets her own poem, as does Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae, whom Herodotus credits with defeating and killing Persia’s Cyrus the Great.
Women from the realm of folk and fairytale who get poems include Sleeping Beauty (she ditches destiny and lives a joyously successful and sexually adventurous life as a city apothecary), Gretel (of “Hansel and Gretel”), and Clementine, of American folksong fame.
Mercedes, the object of Edmond Dantès’ affection in The Count of Monte Cristo, speaks her mind in “Mercedes,” telling the vengeful count:
. . . “when you have gone,
so goes my obligation to the past;
all the rooms that I have built will fling
their doors wide open to the brine, the night sky,
to the singular and many-faceted epiphany
that I have made more of myself
than all your daydreams of me ever did.”
And this sentiment, I believe, is at the heart of the collection: the notion that women can make more of themselves, in any number of ways, than can be dreamed of when they are merely men’s prizes or accoutrements—or even adversaries.