Erika Meitner’s collection Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls opens with an epigraph from “Song of Songs”: We have a little sister/ and she has no breasts./ What shall we do for our sister/ when suitors betray her? This sister becomes a “sleeping sister” in the opening line of the first poem—a poem of declarative, demanding language—and an image throughout the collection. In the opening poem, our speaker orders the addressee, Stay tucked in. Later, hand over// a list of suspects. This dominance appears before the speaker shares any of her own vulnerability. Meitner explores a dichotomy of self versus the body, which evolves into the idea of the body as a foreign object. In the next poem, “Smile! It’s School Picture Time,” the poem moves into first person plural, depicting a group of teenagers: In science class we learn about the body/ from a plastic skeleton and in “Sex Ed”:
We cart eggs around for a week
and try not to break them.
We take pop quizzes on STD transmission.
We are compulsory in our hormones.
We are standardized in our knowledge.
We work hard on weekends to master
drinking in backyards, smoking blunts in parks,
making out in bathrooms. We get on our knees…
There seems to be a power in this first-person plural voice, although it’s a false power. Ultimately, our speaker’s adolescent voice must separate from the crowd and be comfortable with her vulnerability. During the first section, our speaker is demure, an observer who records what others say (and do) to her. The section closes with an elegy, “Elegy for Certain Missing Persons & Secret Parts of Queens with Trains.” The poem ends, There was some else’s finger/ held to my lips.
This image of sexuality, silence, and repression leads into Section II: “The Contact Notes,” a group of poems inspired by or linked to extraterrestrial encounters. I was especially drawn to the poem “Encounter” which describes the alien abduction of Lyndia Morel. Meitner begins the poem, We know approximately what happened, using a first person plural voice which makes Mrs. Morel a distant other. Instead of hearing her voice, we join in the disbelief and look at her as alien; other. The poem reads as a police report in many ways, but of course Meitner expertly gives us gorgeous details and images: Her visible scars were negligible./ She stopped sleeping on her back.
However, in the end, Mrs. Morel is silenced, her story dismissed: The details she reported were ultimately unhelpful. I can’t help but think of this poem within the context of “mansplaining.” Meitner attacks the issue of gender inequality in an interesting way by forcing the reader to be complacent with the injustice. We are forced to exercise empathy for the speaker who clearly does not exercise it for Mrs. Morel. This narrative is an analog to the struggles of young women that are so prevalent in this book.
The poet Joe Millar says that a good poem has three things: stuff, emotion, and intellect. The “stuff” is what carries Meitner’s poems—the tangible imagery creates a sensory world present that is both unique and reminiscent of the reader’s own adolescence—and the intellect and emotion pushes them over the finish line. She takes the easy dichotomies and breaks them, complicating and questioning our assumptions about gender and sex. As a reader, I was engaged all the way through this collection, remembering the smells and awkward, complicated loveliness and frustration of my own adolescence.
Erika Meitner’s work tends to deal with women’s bodies and female sexuality, the perils and pleasures of adolescence, urban peripheries and interstitial spaces. Lately she’s been working on documentary poems that explore the intersections of trauma, image, reportage, pop-culture, consumption, violence, and memory. In addition to being a poet, she has an MA in Religion and Culture, focusing on Jewish Studies, from the University of Virginia. Her research interests include Jewish and Muslim women’s literature, the Jewish-American novel, material religion, and new ritual. Her work has appeared in publications including The Best American Poetry 2011, Best African American Essays 2010, Tin House, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, The New Republic, and elsewhere. She’s the author of four books of poems: Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore (Anhinga Press, 2003); Ideal Cities (Harper Perennial, 2010); Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (Anhinga Press, 2011); and Copia (BOA Editions, 2014).