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I Stand on Holy Ground: Larissa Shmailo's A Cure for Suicide

A Cure for Suicide Book CoverA Cure for Suicide
by Larissa Shmailo

Cervena Barva Press, 2008; 47 pages; $7.00; paper

by Brant Lyon

A wild garden cultivated with a cold eye and warm heart grows between the pages of Larissa Shmailo's latest chapbook of poetry, A Cure for Suicide. In language alternatively brutal and compassionate, in-your-face and ethereal, she expresses passions so primal and attitudes so uncompromising—with images of gods and demons, shamans and serpents, martyrs and murderers, ideas and extreme states of mind brought to the brink of self-undoing or annihilation—it's as though only in all-or-nothing / life-and-death ultimatums does real worth, or the power to redeem, the cure for suicide (or at least its prevention) become viable. In "New Life 1-3 (Magpie Translations from Joseph Brodsky)," the reader is invited to Imagine the more honest the voice, the less it has tears, / love for whatever there might be, passion, fear. Though the poem is the book's last, it might serve as both introduction to and summation of its themes. A Cure for Suicide journeys into realms swirling with forces of nature, mysticism and magic, vortices of all-consuming love, and encounters with death. In these poems the self melds with and transforms / is transformed by the other, then lays out what's blatantly, acutely real, bringing it back to an objective self-awareness that has moved beyond pain and separateness into a bold acceptance of the awesome power of one's individuality, and the imperative to honor and embrace it, less tears. Shmailo's poetry digs deep and reaches far, but not without humor, wit, and charm.

Already in the opening poem, "Vow," the journey's embarkation begins at the edge: We will love like dogwood. / Kiss like cranes. / Die like moths. / I promise. In four short lines passion and commitment declares itself entire; the dogwood flower's crimped and reddish-tinged petals and center resembling a thorny crown may recall its legendary association with the passion of Christ; moths are doomed by their ineluctable attraction to flame; but between them, slender-legged birds loving. In the following poem, "My First Hurricane," the speaker likens herself to 'a dead leaf,' 'suspended' and 'waiting' in 'the eye of the storm' the reader might imagine is her first truly transformational love, having known 'tempests, squalls, and gentle rain,' this time Lifted from the scorched summer earth / Now wet and almost green. Several poems later, in "Aerial View of the Rockies," the poet's point of view expands from the human / personal to, one could say, the oversoul of earth seen as Gaia, where The gods like to trace their fingers in the world; / Like leaves from a primordial tree, landforms bare their veins and from that vantage only the ecological suicide of the planet and the 'dead face she wanted no one to see' may be seen.

The intensity of the poetry, occasionally relaxing its grip for a light touch of humor, still holds to the seriousness of its purpose throughout. A devil-may-care flirtation with death, it is warned in the short and sweet "Dancing with the Devil," will surely lead to a 'date,' but no matter—'the music's fine' and the devil is a dancer 'who can really lead.' Yet for those who would dally with the mediocrity of half-measures the poet regards as more a cop-out than temptation, "Scarcity" issues this admonition: Listen: / If you wait but don't want / If you want but don't take / If you take but don't use / If you use but don't care / If you care but not much / The petty demon comes. The poet assures that 'the truth is hard but you can stand on it,' and so exhorts, 'assume nothing; take a position.'

It is clear that in taking a position, in coming to a place that rises above 'the angry material world' of "Scarcity" in which unimaginative men merely 'squat on positions of power,' the poet, as a woman, must, as in the poem that precedes it, "Abortion Hallucination," triumph over the kind of men that buy her dinner then hate her when she refuses to fuck them twice. But exactly how that is accomplished is not clear. Here the dark phantasmagoric imagery of a snake symbolizing a penis invokes other images that suggest Noah's ark and The Flood (animals carnivorous and calm come home to me / two by two), or shape-shifting into a hippopotamus, conjures 'the Nile giv[ing] its life to me,' as the speaker of the poem, in an hallucinatory sequence of shifting emotions, remembers her mastery of snake-handling—the tumescence and flaccidity of an ambiguously identified man's penis seemingly controlled by her resolve that has 'stared him down' and 'made him warm' even as she interestedly watched the snake / penis grow 'larger and more menacing.' It's hard to say whether the flood mentioned again at the poem's end refers to menstrual flow (indicating no actual impregnation has occurred) or to the blood and tissue of an (imagined?) abortion, or even a birth. For all its murky imagery, it is even less clear where personal boundaries are marked, insofar as the questionable relation of power, even its sexual licitness, remains blurred.

A far more definite assessment of where boundaries are violated or personal integrity disrespected rings out in the exuberant "Bloom," whose lines vociferously defy, complain, and sneer with arch word play, at times jocular, even silly, and begins each of its three sections with an epigraph by two self-confident women, Colette and George Sand (On commence par être dupe, on finit par être fripon—We start out being duped and end up by being a prick). I'm Molly Bloom, you've had me you know: / Birds are just chirping snakes. Birds are feathered, and 'All ways are feathered'—pillows and beds are made of them, upon which men rest (and upon which she too needs to rest but winds up short—'where's the rest?') and birds (presumably playing on the British slang for women) are laid: No bird's no damn good / Until it's been plucked. But Molly Bloom won't touch dead birds, though she may have felt like one 'weak,' 'gone' or 'petered out'—she is a mammal with mammaries! Refusing to buy into male oppression and the mythologies of patriarchy, she declares her independence: A man? Amen. This is Easter: / Rest that piece.

Finding sacredness in death, and, above all, coming to look it squarely in the face is first extensively treated in the titular "How to Meet and Dance with Your Death (Como encuentrar y bailar con su muerte): A Cure for Suicide," a charming prose poem that lists the inebriating ingredients (pulque, tequila, Mescal, marijuana, peyote, etc.) which make up a mind-blowing recipe, then describes the elaborate ritual that accompanies its ingestion. As related by an old curandera instructing a woman in the proper means to pull it off, the ritual must be performed but a single time in her life: If you do this more than once, you will do it often, and then you will become an old borracha who sleeps with common men. Punto. The subtle humor of its deadpan seriousness calls to mind Carlos Castaneda's tutelage under Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan.

In the book's penultimate poem, "Exorcism (Found Poem)," the very opposite sort of accounting—not for any one individual's deliberately planned and romantic dance with death, but for the mindless and wanton slaughter of five to six hundred innocent civilians in the My Lai massacre of the Viet Nam War—mounts like an karmic debt too exorbitant to pay, to exorcize the demons of its monumentally inhumane acts, except perhaps through consecration of the killing fields themselves. Adapted from "Group Dynamics" in M. Scott Peck's psychological treatise, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, it begins its plain and sober exposition of the horrific facts with an incantation, 'I stand on holy ground,' repeated five times, and ends with the same line repeated eight times, as though a litany. This poem, as well as several others in A Cure for Suicide, is recited on Shmailo's second poetry CD, "Exorcism," also published this year, which is excellent, and deserves its own separate review. On that album the text of "Exorcism" is chanted liturgically in imitation of a Roman Catholic / High Anglican mass, thereby considerably heightening the emotional power of its message by way of coupling the sacred tones of the chant with the text's disparate tone of journalistic factuality. Though the beauty and power of Shmailo's language is often enhanced by the addition of music on the CD, the overall intrinsic musicality and cadenced rhythms of her poetry may be read on the page no less satisfyingly without it.

Reading A Cure for Suicide is in fact a little like an exorcism itself. Reflecting on the dark forces that push up from the root of these poems, with nods along the way to Anna Akhmatova, Aleksander Blok, and Anya Logvinova (Shmailo is a Russian scholar and translator of Kruchenych's futurist opera, Victory over the Sun, e.g.), the shadow-self faced, the underlying goodness and health of their sentiments then emerge, steadily ascending, and are released. The passions and anger propelling them is always in Shmailo's firm control, and their sense too layered and considered to spin out into simple expressionism. Even at it's most visceral, "At the Top of My Lungs" where a mother screams at her babies, 'I am your mother! Love me! Let me in!', the poet's awareness of human nature's complexities calculates the formula for coercion in the guise of self-sacrifice: Like a scorpion I would carry you on my back, / My stinger poised, ready to kill; / Oh, how my babies would love me then! The creature here evokes the long-tailed monsters in a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, from which this one has taken its title, and in which Mayakovsky, who notoriously suicided, obsesses over his relevance to posterity and reflects on his (political) extinction. And it's true; nothing gets cured nor even settled in avoiding taboo—and love cannot really win out until it's been tested to the max. The mother says, I love you that much; / Surely that's worth something. Perhaps everything.


Brant Lyon is a poet and composer of music who often conflates both, as in his peripatetic/sporadic 'jazzoetry' reading series, Hydrogen Jukebox in NYC, and in his newly released poemusic CD, Beauty Keeps Laying Its Sharp Knife Against Me (Logochrysalis 2008), reviewed in this issue. Other recent publications include his chapbook, Your Infidel Eyes (Poets Wear Prada 2006), now in its second printing; and poems and photographs anthologized in A Cautionary Tale: Peer into the Lives of Seven New York Poets (Uphook 2008).