Book Review by Zinta Aistars
Perfect Paperback: 102 pages
Publisher: Mayapple Press, 2008
Sledgehammer or tissue, choose your weapon, but you’ll need one of these, and possibly both, when reading Jayne Pupek’s nearly one hundred poems in this debut collection. Most explore and reflect a woman’s survival in a battering world, poems that will make you ache and sometimes want to inflict ache. This is the poetry of rage and suffering, of a woman who has had all that a man’s world can thrust upon her and yet survive. Here is the abuse, the battering of both body and mind, the diseases that afflict flesh and spirit alike. Take it in small doses. You won’t be able to take more than that in one sitting.
But you should. Take more than one sitting, curl up on the floor in a fetal position if you must, but if I learned about a year ago from Jayne Pupek’s Tomato Girl, a novel about the horrific abuse of a child, that she knows, oh she knows, and her mission is to make you know—well, then, take your medicine. It will sting. It will burn all the way down. But not all in life is butterflies and smelly roses. Far too much of it is this: the cruelty to which children and women are subjected in a multitude of ways. And know this—that such things will not go away of their own accord. Silence only empowers abuse and protects the abuser. Pupek’s subject matter may be difficult to read and contemplate, but it is necessary and it is good.
And I do mean good. Not all novelists can be poets, but I would venture to say Pupek is even stronger in this medium. Each one is a therapy session, a rant that is horrific yet somehow astoundingly beautiful at once. She captures it all, the agony and the ability to overcome. These girls and women may be ground to dust, but they do rise up again. They fight back (most if not all), claim their own ground, stronger than ever, independent and feisty to the core.
At forty-three, I’m too old to wait on a redeemer,
sometimes you must intercede on your own behalf.
I’m spreading tarot cards on the ground
and tossing out the ones that land upside down.
I crush bodies, shove my tongue into their mouths,
don’t let them go until they promise blue skies.
Or here, the woman with an unfaithful lover who has learned to pick her battles:
…My lover snoozes upstairs,
dreaming of red-eyed women with iridescent nipples
and thread-thin appendages kneading his oily back.
Why disturb him? I’m a woman who asks nothing,
a woman with a knack for surviving godless nights.
Even as she “asks nothing,” however, Pupek shames the woman for giving in to what’s given her, and observes in a museum of natural history with undisguised disdain:
Homo erectus, female,
bending on hands and knees
displays her species’ ineptitude.
Not all is forgivable. In these poems of suffering and survival, Pupek stretches the limits of endurance—incest, beatings, rape, emotional and psychological battering, suicide—and finds the boundaries.
You keep stepping on the cracks.
How much more can your mother take?
Already her spine is twenty times split,
one for each of your mistakes.
Sometimes there is no absolution.
Scrape the onions off the bread and keep going.
You do what comes next, no matter how ordinary.
What if? Pupek asks in the middle section of this collection. Here we find the occasional moment of loving tenderness, although often it is found between women and not with the opposite gender. These are moments when one comes up above water, gasps for air, and goes down deep again.
What if stars aren’t real,
but another of God’s parlor tricks,
a handful of jacks pulled from black pockets
and tossed into random skies?
What if your hand on her thigh
means you never loved me…
So simply, so simply Pupek captures the torment of the betrayed woman, who then questions life itself, and God, having to endure as he did.
And here’s my Christ-walk on water
stepping over your sea of dirty pictures
where oily stains and bent pages
mark the ones you doggy-fuck in dreams.
She meant nothing is the declaration of a man
born with weak knees and no story.
I can’t be distracted. Are you paying attention?
Let me hold your dim eyes and hollow ear
until I cross the threshold and close the door.
Pupek follows the path of the woman who leaves and the initial fall into loneliness and apathy. Her words knife and nail these feelings with accuracy.
Apathy is dried mustard on last night’s dinner plate.
Loneliness is a fever, igniting the hands and loins.
A woman can get scorched that way.
Dive deeper still, and you find poems about beaten women birthing stillborn children, or women who fall into such despair that they kill their own babes as if in this way alone can they be saved from such a world.
No, this was not easy reading. This was a slim book from which I had to walk away many times. Put it aside so that I could read another. Each time it drew me back, however, haunted me, because too, too many of my gender carry these scars on our own hides and in our own hearts.
Pupek will not leave you without hope. Through this all, this beautifully described ugliness, is truth, and in truth is always something golden: hope for change. Once understood, we can also see the ability to change and live otherwise. In her final poem, she offers this sliver of endurance, even if only on a cellular level:
Still we go on,
because it is in us, the need for continuance,
that sliver of persistence inside every cell.
This is undeniably a collection of poetry that requires courage to read. The poet’s artistry exposes what we do not want to see, yet must. There is no other way out but through the fire of understanding.