Magdalene & the Mermaids by Elizabeth Kate Switaj
(Paper Kite Press)
A quick note: I wasn’t able to preserve the original formatting of the poems I’ve excerpted. My apologies to the author.
Elizabeth Kate Switaj’s Magdalene & the Mermaids is, as the title indicates, divided into two complementary series of poems: the reflections of Mary Magdalene at and around the crucifixion of Christ – an event complicated by the fact that he raped her – and Mary’s transformations between woman and mermaid (although many of the poems seem to come from other speakers). The mermaid thread is richly informed by classical and Gaelic myths; in using mermaids as a metaphor for escaping, and trying to heal, from sexual violence, Switaj beautifully invokes meliae, merrows, sirens, and other figures. By casting such a wide net, she runs the risk of reducing specific cultures to an amorphous, appropriated mass, but by using the title to stress the plurality of the identities Mary’s exploring, Switaj is able to use her poems to recreate her fascination with these stories instead of flattening them into one generic symbol. The first poem, “To Siren in Museum,” is punctuated with the refrain “My story is nothing/ left on some rock,” and throughout the collection, one can almost see her dipping into stories and trying them on.
Although violence and alienation play a large role in the mermaid poems from the very start, it’s only about halfway through the collection that references to rape become explicit. “Meliae,” the second poem in the collection, couches the reference to the speaker’s rape solidly in myth:
No one writes
biographies of average mermaids
You know our lives
by our exceptions
tails sliced to legs
Later on, though, “Seeking My Stars Again” returns to the image and casts it in a (albeit slightly) different light:
I’ll try swimming out again
when more scales have grown between
my legs you ripped apart
to better find me
One can sense, throughout the series, the speaker circling around the event(s) as she attempts to make sense of it. Interspersed between melancholy images of deep water and hair braided with seaweed are scenes in which the speaker, jarringly human, goes about the mundane activities of urban life. As she grapples with the rending of both her body and her self, her consciousness flickers between mundane humanness and escapism – a method of survival all too familiar to survivors of abuse. Although towards the end, the references to rape and escapism become so explicit that the poems start to feel too easy, the connection between femininity, love, and violence remains intriguing throughout. In “Bleeding Again,” for example, the speaker fuses menstruation with rape, moving from the desire “to remember/ my body has more than an abdomen” to the longing for “…your warm arms/ and the hands that held me down.”
The poems that deal specifically with the crucifixion, unlike the poems about mermaids, didn’t quite have enough going on inside them to hold my interest. Maybe it was because of my own personal preferences in terms of myths; maybe it was because I didn’t have enough time to give them the attention they needed; maybe it’s because while crucifixion metaphors can work individually, the cliche is more noticeable in a series. Still, they have their moments. I was especially drawn to “The Second Easter,” in which Mary accuses Jesus of having “even stolen stillness,” claiming that because of their relationship, her thoughts are no longer really her own. “How many lives have I to live,” she wonders, “until my favorite Christmas can be/standing on sunny empty street/in towering city/named for your saint?”
Although it’s dealing with heavy subjects, the collection doesn’t often push the boundaries of language or its themes. That’s okay, though – its focus is much more personal. Near the end, the speaker expresses her longing to come back from her self-imposed exile, and I found myself both hoping that she’d find her way home and wondering if “home” was even a possibility anymore. Overall, Magdalene & the Mermaids is a quiet, sad, and lovely collection – in its language, its logic, and the characters that roam through its pages.
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