Vulgar Remedies by Anna Journey

VulgarRemediesVulgar Remedies
Anna Journey
Louisiana State University Press, August 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8071-5219-5
78 p.p.

The poems in Anna Journey’s second collection continue a dialogue with her first book, If Birds Should Gather Your Hair for Nesting. If these things should happen, Journey offers the reader Vulgar Remedies, poems that create a strange sense of solace while still making us question our world. The book takes its name from an exhibit at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, an exhibit of questionable truth and extreme imagination. The poems in this collection, like the exhibit, offer uncertain diagnoses and propose dubious cures. Take “Vulgar Remedies: Tooth and Salt” for example. This poem reflects images found in the museum while introducing us to our fearful speaker who worries that

a person doesn’t burn
her childhood teeth…
…she’s cursed to search for them
after death in a pail of blood

before coming to this unsettling revelation:

I knew I should’ve written
in my wedding vows: how forever feels
too vague a word.

Our speaker imagines strange cures and second guesses her decisions. She shares with us her uncertainties and the strange landscape of her own mind. Images from her imagined remedies repeat throughout the collection: smoke and fire, birds and flight, salt, rodents, flowers and teeth. This last image leaves us constantly running our tongue along our own teeth. Like the best lines in a poem, these small but vital pieces of ourselves gain new meaning as the collection gains momentum, constructing and inviting us to its own strange world that feels at times foreign and at times too familiar.

Journey opens this collection with images of light.  We’re introduced to something bright “with a wayward sex/ appeal,” which is compared to “girls…who’d glow…” This first poem, “Why Bioluminescent Shrimp Remind Me of Laura,” moves from these images of luminescence to cigarette burns on forearms before finally leaving us with a “lucky skull-lighter” and the smell of smoke. We’re taken from the glowing of innocence and attraction to destruction and flight.

AnnaJourneyOften, two poems are linked by a single image or word that appears in each of the otherwise different poems. The poems in this collection build on each other, slowly introducing more folklore and creating an almost spell-like feeling which always led us back to the title, Vulgar Remedies.  This method of organization creates a kind of lyric, association-based narrative which pushes the reader towards a story without telling one directly. The collection works within a deliberate structure: the poems are divided into four sections of seven to ten poems each. Though the content of the poems is often varied, the form stays relatively similar throughout the book: a page to a page and half, varying line lengths, often in couplets or tercets.

As readers, we always know we’re in good hands, even during the difficult poems. Journey expertly crafts a balance within the tension to steady our expectations and frustrations as readers. There is a steadiness and trust balanced with surreal images: a gas mask bra, a wool blanket “covered in nipples,” a game of hide and seek with a time machine. Journey balances these images and several references to fables, Mandelstam, Berryman, and Swedish folktales while telling her own experiences as if in a fairy tale. She becomes half bird, summoning her “guardians,” her “avian blood.” Our speaker is hyperaware of herself, and, at times, notices things that are invisible to those around her: “no one notices [her] wings—folded, hollow- / boned” in the poem “The Spirit of the Hour Visits Big Pappa’s Barbecue Joint.” It’s as if she can almost transcend the situation, almost fly away, but can’t. And she admits,

This is
why I come here. To remind myself
I was once alive.

We’re with her between worlds, half alive, half dead; sometimes half awake, half asleep.

The last section of the book contains two sonnet sequences: “Sonnets to the Egyptian Chamomile Farmers” nod to a homeopathic remedy for sleep while “Sonnets to Ambien” nod to modern medicine. We’re with her “In the country of No Sleep, Not a Doze” and with her in the dreams where she can’t “see the numbers of [her] watch and people’s lips / stub out words with a blur.” By the end of the collection, we too are searching for remedies. We, with our speaker, long to see despite the shadows of this new country, the “largest / island, with one inhabitant, with one light always left on.” As readers, we have found ourselves in this same country, aware of our own trials and aching for “remedies” to heal us.

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