Reviewed by Miriam O’Neal
It begins with the idea of the Past, as a body disinterred from its grave, its burial shroud unraveled, spread out in the sun to “burn/ off the mold, the stink.” It ends with cigar smoke, Easter Peeps, car keys, and, finally, “a fallen galaxy.” In between these two points, Nancy Mitchell’s, The Out-of-Body Shop (MadHat Press, 2018 ISBN:978-1-941196-71-7) plunges the reader into the five senses again and again, while also walking us through the ways the mind releases itself from the body, finding safety in disassociation.
Smells, sounds, touched surfaces, images, and tastes anchor the poems in the physical world even as the mind flees. Mitchell invites us to consider how trauma, sorrow, fear, memory, revelation often include the cost of separating from oneself for survival purposes and sometimes, more happily, for the delicious disappearance down the rabbit hole of lovemaking. Mitchell captures the out-of-body experience in two early poems, “Unbearable” and “Intake Invoice.” They share facing pages in the text, which helps reinforce their difference. In “Unbearable” a speaker declares,
Want to make love
outdoors and eat dark
bread knock out
this wall with a sledge
hammer and let the night
in sink my arms in warm
The intensity of the speaker’s declaration suggests a physicality that cannot be contained within the body, a sense of being larger than the physical self.
Facing “Unbearable” is “Intake Invoice.” This poem turns the erotic loss of self to something larger on its head as “Intake” details are listed:
Incident: Female. Fifth grade.
School bus driver—grandfatherly, smelled
of soap and rising dough.
Called her chica
bonita, asked about books
she liked. His hand—
blue veins, skin thin
as tracing paper—slid
up her blouse, callused
edge of his thumb nicking
her nipple. The whole time
he was smiling….. (1-13)
The poem closes around the young abuse victim’s “symptoms: …/ …sense of shrinking.” Here, Mitchell uses the languages of reports, interviews, and diagnostics to reinforce the girl’s sense of disassociation from her experience. We recognize the way her mind stepped out of the moment in order to survive.
Within the first few pages of The Out-of-Body Shop, Mitchell establishes both its arc and its mirror. Over the rest of the collection, she walks us in and out of the ‘shop’ of the mind. Physical pain, survival of self, revelation of self, revisiting roots, trespasses, and losses all require an ability to navigate the past with faith in the healing qualities of introspection and distance.
Knowing where we come from seems like a good place to start in understanding the quirks and foibles that bind us and/or separate us from others in our present lives. “Family Photograph circa 1920” and “Farewell to BellHaven,” work as a portrait and a mosaic that reveal lives held together by sheer will in spite of having been shattered by accidental death and suicide. There is the speaker’s favorite aunt to consider; her plain and “rigid-as-a-soldier’s face” that the speaker loves most because “I knew she was loved the least.” In this poem, Mitchell gets at the kernel of how, as children, we walk out of ourselves and into the ‘other’ as we choose our ancestors less by direct heritage than by a sense of connection to this or that one, which rises in our own imaginations and the condition of our own hearts.
The poems in The Out-of-Body Shop range in scale and size from slender lyrics, to aubades, prayers, and muscular prose poem narratives. In all cases, her attention to the way sound can bind the reader to the poem’s reason for being is consistent. “Ah in Father,” lays its success on the various ‘a’ sounds, flattened and hardened, that run through the poem. This apparently simple sound experiment constructs the father/daughter relationship clearly. The conflict of love and power, failure and confusion are all there. And, as with so many poems in this collection, “The Ah in Father” is mirrored by a slight lyric about a child’s misperception of what she is seeing; fireflies in the vacant lot become weeds burning because her father has threatened to do just that.
Occasionally the speaker changes in these poems. A young father with a violent past faces his demons after his child is born. A would-be keeper of hens, can’t make a commitment to his flock: disaster and guilt ensue. The hen-keeper’s landlord diagnoses the source of one hen’s death. There are also poems of direct address as the speaker shares the death and funeral rites of a close friend and his child’s reactions to the ritual, seemingly endless ringing of bells. In every case, Mitchell gazes unwaveringly at the near and distant past, with that ability to “be in, but not of” the experience. As Ranier Maria Rilke wrote, “This is the crux of all that once existed,/ that we are not returned to it completely….”
At the heart of the book the mirror poems, “Why I’m Here” and “While In the Body” speak to the challenge of recovery from the disassociativeness, that sometimes impedes the sense of self within self. Finding one’s way back into one’s own body is the objective. Understanding that one has used absence for survival is the first step.
As the first poem in the book prepares the reader for an examination of the past and of recovery of the self, the pair of closing poems return to the moment when, it would appear, the speaker finally refused to be separated from herself. The act of leaving her husband is the first step toward recovering herself. “Prayers Reversed” is such a formidable title, as it implies action over supplication.
….. Toast burns and the air
stinks of the cigar smoke rising
from behind the business
report you’re reading. Slowly
I gather the car keys, my purse
our will and good
silver. Shush the children,
lure them with Peeps
from the TV’s gleam before
we slip out the back door
careful of the hinge’s squeak. (11-18)
The final poem, “Leaving” completes the rejoining of body to mind, opening us at the very end to “a fallen galaxy.” We look back with the speaker, and then, ahead.
Whether we have experienced trauma ourselves, or the more quotidian challenge of not conforming to another’s idea of the norm, our minds often find a way of sheltering from those storms, understanding that there is harm afoot. These poems offer the reveal, that once you have found yourself ‘out-of-body’, there is a way back.
About the reviewer:
Miriam O’Neal has published poems and/or reviews in AGNI, Marlboro Review, Louisiana Literature, Birmingham Review, The Guidebook, previously in Ragazine.CC, and elsewhere. Her translation of Italian poet, Alda Merini earned her a Beginning Translator’s Fellowship from the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in 2007.