Collection Title: Catechesis: A Postpastoral
Collection Author: Lindsay Lusby
Reviewer: Lily Starr
It is not often that I open a collection of poetry and am immediately stunned by vivid, color photos of flora, diagrams of human bones, a family of black and white sheep clustered together on the bottom of a page, or pink and green teeth sitting spryly on long stems. And what’s more, these visually arresting collages are only a part of the whole; we haven’t even gotten to the poems themselves.
Lindsay Lusby’s first full-length collection Catechesis: A Postpastoral, winner of The Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry and published by University of Utah Press, shows us its bones right from the very beginning. The first word of the book? Woman. The first word of the first poem? Girl. Lusby puts deep, complicated femininity at the forefront of her poetry, collecting and re-shaping references from Jonathan Demme’s iconic horror film Silence of the Lambs, 1954 guidebook The MacMillan Wild Flower Book, Brothers Grimm, Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction film Alien, among others, to define what it means to be a woman in this strange, strange world. Of course, by strange world I mean both reality and the fantastical, horrific garden where Lusby’s poems reside.
One of the main fascinations of Catechesis lies in the reimagination of fairytale. But rather than relying on the tropes we have seen over and over such as Cinderella or Snow White of Disney fame, Lusby takes a more animalistic, raw approach. This is not to say the poems are not romantic in their way—I often found myself entranced by Lusby’s invention of compound words such as deersoft, nightstruck, moonbright, nightbloom, milkwarm, and ditchweed, to name a few—but rather the characters that we see throughout the book are flawed, often bloodied, and plagued by monstrous men, just as Lusby’s female readers are. Needless to say it does not take long for Lusby to develop a connection with her audience, a connection that fascinates and excites with gore, flowers blooming from jawbones, apples that replace human hearts, and the occasional set of instructions such as these:
When he is asleep,
rip him open
like a barndoor.
—from Have the lambs stopped screaming?
What especially makes this fairytale different is not only the presence of Clarice or the voice of Hannibal Lecter, but the insinuation of one’s own body. A body in the poem peeled of its skin, your body reflected back at you, peeled of what shields it from horror, from male violence and force, from nature, shown bare in all it’s experience, scars, and beauty. How whole one is even while dissected, separated from herself.
And if this isn’t enough to sell you, Lusby’s poems are peppered with collages of found material. Vibrant color scans of flowers, illustrations of moths frenzied around a gaslit flame, teeth with their long, white roots exposed, vintage advertisements for fertilizer, drawings of needles, dazzling erasures of scientific texts—all are able to coexist in the world of Catechesis. In some ways Lusby’s collages are visual representations of the whole collection, revealing to us one layer of imagery at a time from bone to blossom.
Catechesis shows us that womanhood and fairytale are not for the faint of heart. Lusby shows us the supernatural but flips the mirror; it was our own bodies and gore all along. She whittles legend to moment and boils iconography down to shimmering memory in this deeply feminist collection.
Lily Starr is a student of poetry from Cecil County, Maryland. She earned a BA in English from Washington College in the spring of 2017 and is currently pursuing her MFA at Florida International University in Miami. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in The Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.
Lindsay Lusby is the author of two previous chapbooks, Blackbird Whitetail Redhand and Imago, and the winner of the 2015 Fairy Tale Review poetry contest. Lusby is assistant director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College, where she serves as assistant editor for the Literary House Press and managing editor for Cherry Tree.