This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
In “Flame War,” the poem that gives her debut poetry collection Witch Hunt its title, Juliet Escoria offers something of a statement of purpose for the book, or at least the masochistic spiritual grain from which the book grows: she fears she’s kind of a bad person, and she knows people who think so, and she’s survived the worst outcomes of that already, so there’s no point in pretending otherwise.
Everyone is talking about witch hunts
like they’re a bad thing
but I think
it could be fun.
If they had some
maybe I could finally know
how other people looked at me.
She’s been a drunk and a junkie and sometimes still kind of misses it; she’s dealt with mental health issues her entire life and she’s attempted suicide multiple times and her mom’s been scared to death for her since she was born; she thinks bad thoughts and uses the word retarded and she hates horses and imagines babies dying horrible deaths and she worries she’s too pretty to be a poet. You could frame this within a cliché explanation that she’s writing all this to show us her worst and see if we’ll accept her anyway, but I don’t think that’s it. It’s just what’s there, and what and why else do you write? In “How Should a Person Be,” she expresses an awareness of the risk she’s taking in putting her worst down in these poems. She tells her husband she’s worried she’ll look like a bad person, and he tells her she is, in fact.
and I just needed to
because we are all mean
and nasty underneath
and anyone who denies this
is a liar.
So. She shows us her worst, and there is a masochistic rawness to these confessions. This isn’t lyrical poetry, and while there are clever turns of phrase or unique constructions throughout these poems, there is very little of what we might call beauty in these pages. Beauty drinks a few streets over; she hasn’t been around this bar in a while, and no one seems to miss her.
This is not to say Witch Hunt pursues or celebrates the hideous. It simply refuses to apply make-up to scars, wounds, blemishes. Sometimes this is literal: in several poems, Escoria writes of a time when her body was breaking out in severe acne, which is sometime a symptom of detox and withdrawal. There is no pretty way to write about pimples and pus, and she doesn’t try: her life, at that point, involved a lot of pimples and pus, and so her poetry involves some of it now. Looking deeper than that though, we see an impulsive and categorical refusal not only to hide the worst things of her life, but even to frame them in such a way as to make them seem profound, poignant, or what we simply reference as “poetic.” There are prose list poems of her recurring intrusive thoughts of violence, seemingly pointless assertions about why horses are awful and should die, and bare account after bare account of her former drug use, drunkenness, hospitalization, violent relationships, and high-risk sexual behavior. These aren’t celebrated or held up as symbols of coolness, but neither are they safely denounced or offered as cautionary. They are things that happened. They were and, to an extent, are a part of her.
Quite a few individuals who have played roles in her life feature in these poems, including her mother and old lovers. There is a section of the book titled “Letters to Ex-Lovers” in which she writes short letters to several of these men, all of them degenerate in one way or many. Some were abusive. Most were users. There is little emotion in these letters. There is more in poems where she talks about her current partner, a man she recently married. He has a host of problems of his own, but he loves her. They can break together, even if they’re the ones doing much of the breaking. She lays this out in a poem titled “Top 10 Greatest Feels,” which mixes the ironic and the sincere, the latter showcased here:
Accepting at age thirty
that you’ve never been in any
position to take care of
that a rose garden
so why not let
someone truly love you.
Escoria isn’t writing from a place of post-dysfunctional wisdom and perspective. She’s writing from a hazy and tentative recovery, and her problems, both past and present, will always be a part of who she is. She’s honest enough to admit the siren song of her former life can still sometimes call to her:
Stability is nice but
sometimes I miss
I hear from former users and drunks that if addiction had one thing going for it, it was oblivion. Juliet Escoria doesn’t deny the appeal of that, but she’s chosen now to be awake instead. Ugly and pretty, she shows us everything, and it’s up to us if we want to look.
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