Apocryphal is a hazy memory, a recollection of an event that is not always clear. It is a myth, a legend. Lisa M. Basile uses this word to define her collection of short poems. Some are full and robust while others are uncertain. Her exploration is not just of the human mind, but also the human body. She explores the intricate balance of power in a sexual relationship and the portrayal of women as victims. Her father is both a towering presence in her life and a man she barely knows. This collection is about a woman, but it is also about all women—all women who crave the attention of men, only to be torn apart by them. Basile knows how the patriarchal system sees her. She proclaims: “I was born a vessel, and vessels can’t be lied-to. They can only consume.”
Basile avoids terms like “victim.” She is powerful, even in her heartache. The Garden of Eden is filled with snakes and it was a woman who listened to the snake, but maybe this was no accident. Maybe Eve was no victim, but someone who sought out knowledge and power. Some passages assert that sex is power and that women hold the power:
“when you wrote me letters I let a boy named Adam finger
me and thought of the irony. I imagined the Garden
of Eden, the serpent, the secret.
the truth is: I enjoyed the fruit.
it has taught me to consume.”
Eve is no victim. Rather, she holds the power over her lover and has the power to deceive. The image of the serpent appears more than once in Apocryphal and seems to symbolize women’s desire for the fruit. The image of the snake appears again in a memory of her mother:
“she tells me of snakes
that she married my father because a small part of her loved death.”
Her mother, who was “born for pain,” married her father even though she knew that he was a serpent. She knew that he would only bring her pain. Like the speaker, her mother took the apple from the serpent knowing full well the pain it would bring her. This is why “everything is born natural and then it is not natural.” We are all perfect beings until we desire more and must leave Eden.
The speaker did not receive love from her father and as a result seeks love from those who do not love her. Her mother was “born for pain,” and she was “born bad.” She gives all of herself to her lover: her body, her heart, even her free will. But he returns none of it. She cannot remain complete on sex alone. She cannot be filled up by the men she “consumes.” She continues to seek those who do not return her love. This desire to please relates to the quote that introduces Apocryphal:
“And in his eyes he had the look of the cat who inspires a desire to caress but loves no one, who never feels he must respond to the impulses he arouses.”
This is from Anais Nin’s short story erotica collection, posthumously published in 1977. The fact that Basile chose this quote to open her poetry collection is both a nod to Nin’s work and a deviation from it. Nin wrote her collection for a man known only as “The Collector” in 1940. He commissioned her, and a few other writers, to write erotica for his own private collection. Nin was later celebrated for writing in such a male-dominated field and for exploring female sexuality. Basile is also celebrating female sexuality in her collection, but she is simultaneously challenging how we view women. She asserts that women are sexually charged and empowered by their sexuality. But women are too often valued only for their bodies:
“I don’t bleed like anyone else,
no, it’s much worse.
it works until it doesn’t,
I work until I don’t.
you say I’m a set-fire-to-the-house-kind-of-girl,
it’s something to admire,
me in this negligee,
Her lover bends her over a balcony, dresses her in a bustier and leopard-print heels, and chokes her. He does this all to her body. He views her as a mannequin, a still-life, a photograph. But she wants to be seen for who she is, not just how her body looks. Her lover wants perfection and the perfect image of her, but she craves complete love filled with imperfections:
“I don’t want to be loved despite my history: I want absolution, someone to observe my fitting-into and growing-out-of, someone to watch my spine make the mannequin come to life.”
Most of her poems are abrupt and uncertain, like memories. But this one is clear. She knows what she wants from a man. She wants someone who does not view her as a myth or a legend, but as a real person. She knows that “the whole body is a lie” and that “beauty is only useful for so long,” but she cannot seem to bridge the gap from bodily pleasure to human connection. Again, Basile returns to this image of Eden. She views the body as “shameful.” The image of the body as a “secret” meant to be hidden. “We are not our bodies,” she proclaims. If the body did the ill deed, then it was not her. After all, her body is only a vessel.
Apocryphal is raw. It is the blurry photographs of childhood. It is rough sex on a metallic car. It is searching for love with blinders over our eyes. Basile writes beautifully of our need to find emotional connection in a world filled with bodily pleasure. Like all of us, her memories are unclear. She searches for men, like her father, a “boulder” and a man she barely knew. She yearns to freeze time with her lover and be with him, alone, “standing near the black shore.” But time cannot be frozen or rewound. We cannot even time travel in our memories because our memories are untrustworthy. We left the Garden of Eden and traded perfection for heartache. Our bodies are no longer secrets, they are shared with lovers and we are ashamed of them. Our bodies give us pleasure, but they also bring pain. We could wallow in this pain, or we could use this pain for more. Basile opens up her own fresh wounds and shares her pain. The words are intense, erotic, and—at times—unnerving. She explores her pain and her pleasure and brings out the beauty in heartache.
Lisa M. Basile is a poet, author, and editor living in New York City. She has written for Alloy Media’s Blisstree and The Grindstone, Billboard Magazine, 20-Something Magazine and more. She edits and runs Luna Luna Mag. She holds an MFA from The New School and is the author of Andalucia (The Poetry Society of NY) and Triste (Dancing Girl Press). She is the NY editor and a writing instructor for the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, an online and print literary and arts journal housed at The Johns Hopkins University M. A. in Writing Program. Apocryphal was named one of Amazon’s top ten best-selling new poetry releases. Basile tweets at @lisamariebasile