Forms of Intercession
by Jayne Pupek
Mayapple Press 2008
Reviewed by Bryan Stokes II
On the last page of Forms of Intercession, Jayne Pupek’s first full-length collection, a short author bio notes that she has spent most of her career as a mental health professional. The off-kilter verse on each of the preceding pages, however, intentionally gives the perception that they were written from within the proverbial padded room. In a time when taboos have themselves become verboten, Pupek manages to recapture in poems about sickness, infidelity and death the same uneasy awkwardness once reserved for discussions of politics, religion and money. Poems such as “Lunch Hour” carry a continuous narrative through stark, startling images of the carnivalesque and unexpected: “I watch / a woman wrestle a dog to the ground. / She wants his bone.”
Divided into three sections, Forms of Intercession opens hesitantly. The first section, also titled “Forms of Intercession,” begins with a disjointed poem of the same name, each stanza of which holds a tightly wound microcosm of a narrative, unrelated to any other. It takes several poems with loosely connecting threads before Pupek settles comfortably into multi-poem ruminations on death and mental illness. She warns in “Walking in the City” that “sometimes there is no absolution. / Scrape the onions off the bread and keep going, / You do what comes next, no matter how ordinary.” Yet there is nothing ordinary about the poems which follow. After the ghost of suicide Spalding Gray guides a young woman away from a bridge railing, concerned about “the wistful look in your eyes, / and the way your body leans towards water,” the ghost of Sylvia Plath visits in the next poem, encouraging a woman to follow in her footsteps. “Just leave / the children’s milk in a bowl, and don’t forget / to stuff rags in the cracks of the kitchen door,” Plath advises, her disembodied head appearing in the depressed housewife’s oven. Pupek’s unwavering attention to detail fleshes out these narratives, bringing the grotesque form of Plath’s “dirth-blonde head” on which “charred skin peels from her cheeks” into vivid life on the page.
The grace and creativity of Pupek’s effort lies in her ability to spread a single theme across a wide swath of poems without risking dullness or repetition, or without even once acknowledging that the stories are related or that the narrator’s voice is the same across disparate poems. Readers are left to question whether the woman in “Inkblots” who watches as bats “fly off stiff white cards / and circle the room” at her therapist’s office also later in “Puzzle” suffers as:
Red block letters tell me
there are 1,000 pieces.
I find only 999.
I look under chairs, dig under carpet,
bite brittle nails to quick.
On the mirrored side of the window,
I can’t see the examiner reach into his pocket
to caress my piece of sky.
The single, clear voice threading through each poem intensifies the litany of woe that Pupek builds in this collection. Unending and unsparing suffering makes a reader want to turn away (“Broken water and a baby born wrong. / She is not what anyone wanted. She is not what you wanted and / you are her mother.”), yet that urge is overcome by attachment to this well-developed tragic character.
If any flaw must be found in Pupek’s brash verse, it is a flaw no worse than that of a Stephen King novel or a blockbuster horror film: desensitization. By the middle of the collection, the reader no longer feels shocked when, in the poem “Apparition,” an ill woman receives a visit from her boyfriend, dead by suicide, and calmly announces that during their embrace “I found the hole in the back of his skull / and plunged my fingers into its core.” Nor does it surprise that, next to her slivered almonds, she keeps “a jar holding a fetus. Homo Sapiens. Female. / Born to another woman. I hesitate to name her,” which she carries around in public and displays to unsuspecting passersby. The poems come to embody the carnival, where the three-headed dog is no longer an oddity, but a stale part of the everyday fare.
Oversaturated themes are easily overshadowed. Pupek exhibits a rare ability to drag a poem out of the realm of the abstract and compel it to expose the tangible flesh underneath. In “Some Days,” five stanzas of gentle ruminations on past explorations of mathematics are shattered by two stanzas of undeniable substance.
Today, a nurse escorts visitors to my bed.
She assigns each one a name. This is your family,
she insists. Not students. The students are gone.
They stand around, a row of faces
Amid Pupek’s many themes, reality proves itself the most meaningful. The poems of this collection defy easy interpretation, preferring to unveil their secrets slowly as the narrative builds. Pupek’s greatest tool proves to be her scalpel, excising the outer coverings of metaphor and obfuscation that other poems might sheathe themselves in, leaving only the essence. “She opens his vest, pokes with bare fingers, / pulls organs like magician’s scarves.”