Reviews, Vol. 3.3, Sept. 2009
Mayapple Press, 2009
Paperback, 36 pp., $12.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Mary Alexandra Agner’s debut poetry collection, The Doors of the Body, provides alternates to history and to fairy tales. Agner has a gift for speaking through her characters, giving them authentic voice.
“Sleeping Beauty” is one such poem that does not so much answer the question, “What if?” as it simply provides a forthright, plausible alternate. What would have really happened to Briar Rose/Princess Aurora? Agner writes in language that is as succinct and carefully crafted as it is witty and penetrating:
Let the spurned witch-sister
and the so-called fairy godmothers
duke out what history is writ.
Poor planning lets fate devour
the happy story here-and-now.
Destiny wants purity and light
and most of all submission
Agner writes often from the feminine voice of the past—Helen, Athena, and Minerva among them. Their voices are strong, and ring true (no simple task for any poet to achieve). “Wit” shines. Its epigraph is a quote from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle referencing the besting of Sherlock Holmes’ plans “by a woman’s wit.” Lines like “Woman plus Intelligence / equals Tragedy” show off Agner’s skill, as does her ability to capture women of history and provide them with a strong voice. “Troll” describes a woman who is abused, but this message is indirect, couched more effectively in description and sustained metaphor that provides the reader with strong, effective imagery:
To keep boys from the wrong idea, you shaped
and kneaded head and hair by hand.
The taste of blood eclipsed my mouth,
red cauldron which rebirthed my teeth
Agner’s poems are feminist in a very traditional sense, but her use of language and ability to bring to light and enliven dim faces and stories from history is rare. Many of the pieces end on a satisfying note of revenge, such as “Oh My Darling” and “Terms.” The poet often treats the transformation of the body through death, and after death via the continuation of spirit, the verve held by that life, and the continued feminine influence through a woman’s story (history) as it is passed down through time. This is precisely why poets like Agner are needed—to keep the stories that matter from becoming dusty history and mere suffering intimations of faceless women. The Doors of the Body is significant for its poetry, for the message the works contain, and for the doors they open.