(North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2019)
You don’t so much open this book as you step into it. In this pocket-size creation from Tupelo Press, featuring the arresting illustrations of Lavinia Hanachiuc, Katie Farris seduces us into an uncanny dimension full of freaks and saints. Like the realm of Faerie, these hybrid poems exist in liminal states, between becoming and being, conscious and subconscious, girl and boy, and everything in between. Each fairy tale-parable draws upon archetypes that appeal to collective memory as we encounter an extraordinary being undergoing transformation. With their inherent contradictions and performative identities, these beings encompass duality and reflect the struggle to define the self. But while the implications of these tales are as complex and wild as nature itself, the lyricism and intentionality of Farris’ lines create a defined space in which these shadows may frolic.
boysgirls is divided in two, a riddle involving Tireseus between “girls” and “boys.” But at the entrance to the text, a wild, apostrophic “introduction/implication” swoons, “O o o o o Madness!” as the speaker announces herself, the Sheherazade in this frame story. This romantic invocation, the kind I’ll always associate with John Donne or Edmund Spenser, invites our suspension of disbelief as we enter the gloaming of the madwoman’s Khubla Khan-like vision. She beckons, like Puck, and promises to lead us through these visions as our Virgil, warning, “Between these covers you will participate whether you desire it or not. You might think about this before you turn the page. You might turn the page.” Our participation, we are reminded, begins with the decision to open the text, each turn of the page a decision to press forward. There is a sense of something already underway.
Hanachiuc’s first illustration, (besides the cover art) appears centerfold at the entrance to the “girls” section. At first turn, it appears to depict a single, feminine face with open mouth and golden curls. But as the pages spread apart, a second face with closed lips appears on the left page. The gemini-like maidens are framed inside a border of alternately light and bold ink strokes and broad, open crescents tapering to elvish curls. This duality repeats throughout the book, reflecting ambivalence, contradiction, and the mutation of form. Hanachiuc’s style perfectly complements the fey ambiance throughout the text, her open shapes and long, curving lines calling to mind psych-rock designer David Edward Byrd, but with the occult sexuality of Marjorie Cameron and her chaotic, LaVeyan visions.
Like folk tales, which morph over time and across cultures, Farris draws upon recognizable archetypes to invert, retell, or challenge. In a few of the “girls” stories, we encounter societies that aren’t terribly unlike our own. In “Cyclops,” a one-eyed girl has an “overcooked quality: singed brittle round the edges.” With her unique physical features, she is subjected to tests and studies, even as she forges a career as a lecturer on Loss. But the scientists aren’t so much interested in listening to her as they are examining her. “She has so many seams––between toe and toe, finger and finger, the place where her earflap would have met her head.” The girl’s body is like a gallery of misplaced intersections, and is revered for the freakishness of her physical form rather than her intellectual offerings.
Farris often makes use of repetition and alliteration, creating staccato textures and clever inversions. The first line of “Mise en Abyme” puffs aggressively: “People are forever falling for the girl with a mirror for a face…And why not?” Indeed––it makes perfect sense that people would fall in love with someone who merely reflects their own image, considering the ways in which women are routinely reduced to the sum of other peoples’ desires. It likewise makes sense to repeat this “f,” the sound in and of “friction,” a rubbing together of two surfaces, the tension between two materials. This repetition, as well as the idea of “forever falling,” echo this image-within-an-image concept of a funhouse mirror: two surfaces facing each other, multiplying their reflections and creating “an infinity of nothingness.” The burden of nothingness is so great, the girl “would like her own mouth, so as to be less empty.” And yet, she remembers that the number zero was originally used as a placeholder, implying infinite possibility. Therefore, she realizes, “I am not only empty…I contain multitudes.” This realization seems to coagulate the girl’s inherent contradiction, as if this is the nourishment she needed all along.
In a few narratives, girls find their source of power, sometimes only to have it cut down. In “The Girl Who Grew,” a little girl wants to grow up. And so she does––literally––grow to be a giant. More innocent than Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, that 1958 sci-fi classic about gaslighting and female rage, the Girl Who Grew grows not because of some traumatic radiation attack, but suddenly, along the lines of Kafka: “One summer night, she did grow.” When she gets her wish, she is (at first) very pleased, even when people run from her; “She let go a laugh that haunted children into the arms of their mothers, and the mothers into the arms of their fathers, and fathers into the arms of the churches. Still, she kept growing.” In a sentence built on parallelism, Farris conjures yet another Russian-doll mise en abyme, and subverts expectation within her own structure.
As we transition to “boys,” the madwoman relates the tale of The Boy With One Wing and his Pinocchio-Geppetto relationship to The Inventor of Invented Things, a kind of reverse-engineering deity who is determined to invent the boy a wing to give him flight. He is the epitome of a hybrid creature, “a halfway boy,” flightless but not entirely earth-bound. He is terribly alone, but chased relentlessly by the women in the town who are drawn to him for his bestiality and simultaneous fragility. After sitting for months in a waiting room, the boy is finally able to be seen by the inventor. The Inventor of Invented Things is fascinated with him: “He wishes to invent the magic or genetic sequence that created this––what is this?” After their meeting, the two dream about each other, considering whether flight or love offers greater freedom.
Rather than the sort of tales in which we can point to a specific moral lesson, the stories in boysgirls offer more possibilities than conclusions. And while we sometimes leave these beings on the cusp of metamorphosis, Farris’ word selection and lines like incantations reverberate throughout memory and dream. Fans of Matthea Harvey’s hybrid mermaids will embrace these characters, and readers of Angela Carter will bask in these mythic inventions/inversions that point to gender identity and sexual agency. With its immersive magic and unforgettable imagery, life surges through this tiny, gorgeous book that rewards and re-rewards with each tumble down its rabbit hole.
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Juliana Converse has reviews and nonfiction published or forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, The Compulsive Reader, Tupelo Quarterly, and Witch Craft Magazine. Her fiction has appeared in What Weekly and BlazeVOX, and she was the 1st place winner of the 2014 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Short Story Contest. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, and lives in Baltimore City, Maryland.