SHE, poems by Theadora Siranian, reviewed by Juniper Jordan Cruz
Seven Kitchen Press, 35 pages
reviewed by Juniper Jordan Cruz
Theadora’s Siranian’s chapbook, She, is violently intoxicating and sobering at the same time. In investigating loss and trauma, she chooses to present the messy over the meditative. Siranian invites her readers into proximity and distance simultaneously: showcasing the immediate and visceral in the body of her poems, but nesting them under titles that take a step back. She begins with pseudo-abstract poem titles such as “Origin Myth,” “Her,” and “Erytheia,” and when the poem nears its end, she twists our necks to a visceral image: a man’s forearm sliced open by a trapped rabbit, a family attempting to watch tv after their child burned alive, her mother’s skin peeling off her body.
The book is separated into three sections, each beginning with a poem titled, “Origin Myth.” It is important to note that this isn’t the only instance in which a poem title is repeated. There are six poems titled “Her,” not including the poem titled, “Killing HerEach origin myth differs in tone, they are tethered together in a collective project. When Siranian writes:
What was always fresh and unknown
was perhaps not the moment, but it’s a recollection. (origin myth pt.2)
Here Siranian teaches us how to read her chapbook: not as a narrative piece but a recollection of the same tragedy. In her repetition of titles, the reader is asked to look again and the nearly-unbearable and made proximate to Siranian’s position as a witness to her mother’s terminal illness. With that being said, the book is not redundant. Each poem brings us along the journey of the speaker processing this event while simultaneously processing the fact that her mother has caused her pain. What makes the poems so captivating is that Siranian unflinchingly deals with “taboo” emotions to feel towards a dying parent that one is tending to. Anger and resentment are forced into cohabitation with grief and love.
One of the greatest examples of this type of vulnerability is in Killing Her,” here the speaker wakes up early in the morning to examine a bump. Fearing she has breast cancer, she believes that she will die before her mother, who is already sick with cancer. The poem gets rawer from there until its brutal climax:
I know only this:
There was always me, watching her scream into the void,
this act of witness the only thing I’ve ever truly hated,
this awful, necessary love. In the shower then next morning
I discover it’s only a scratch made during sleep. Wonder:
how can one call it devotion and ascribe meaning to
another’s existence. My heart: this bloody fucking stump,
my first: an open palm, begging.
This access into Siranian’s deepest, most volatile feelings acts as a sense of catharsis for the reader. Describing her witness of her mother’s dying as an “awful, necessary love,” is a moment of brutal, yet freeing honesty. Siranian’s voice is heartbreaking and sometimes humorous. Her recollection of this tragedy pulls out emotions one wouldn’t expect to find here. But her intermixing of blunt language with the lyrical makes her sincere. Her humor is best seen in a poem like, “My Unconscious Contemplates My Mother’s Disease, where she dreams of splitting the orderly head open in a cartoonish way while the doctors sing, “radiation, radiation, radiation.”
Formally, the poems are comprised of either large, unyielding stanzas or a series of couplets and single lines. There are many moments in her poems where her line breaks at an action. At its best, it creates tension and defies our expectations of what we may believe the speaker would be doing. A great example is the first couplet in the quote above. Though we are given hints of bitterness in a few poems before this, it is here where we are truly shown that the speaker believes the mother should be guilty. It changes the ways we should read the prior poems. Still, one of my only critiques is that this kind of line break happens many times throughout the book. And when it works like the aforementioned example, it’s compelling. However, it’s washed out by the times it does not work.
The final section of this book offers a shift in her voice from the rest of the book. Aside from containing two poems that draw a lineage between the Siranian and the Ancient Greek goddesses, Hecate and Persephone, each poem is more steeped in the lyrical, none truly brings us to the tangible moments of her life to ground us. There is no gazing at her mom’s thin and crimson skin and no watching a frightened rabbit tear open a man’s forearm. Though not every poem possesses some sort of tangible event, each section had those poems that grounded the reader in some sort of space and time. An anchor to tether ourselves to as we descend into what Siranian may call her madness.
The penultimate poem is titled, “Anosogosia,” which is defined as the inability to interpret sensations and hence recognize things. Though all three sections return to the same event, this time, the anchor of physical stimulus is lost for us and her. She announces, “Now you can see the edges of it,” (Agnosogosia). One of the poem’s epigraphs states, “[Psychology] revolves around a paradox: an early sign of insanity is to recognize that you’ve been insane.” Theadora Siranian’s chapbook settles in those early moments. The final poems are not a celebration of being healed; instead, they are a somber submission of the state the reader is in. An acceptance of “Pain, so prevalent here, almost begins to lose its magnitude.” (Erythia). Yet, even after multiple rereads, the pain never loses its magnitude. And that is a testament to Siranian’s ability to make each poem feel like we are gazing at a fresh, open wound, that is, at the same time being tended to with great care.
Juniper Jordan Cruz is a writer and body artist from Hartford, Connecticut. She is a 2019 graduate from Kenyon College, where she studied creative writing. Her work has been published in Poets.org, Lambda Literary, and the Atlantic. Her works have also been recognized by Gigantic Sequins and the Academy of American Poetry Prize at Kenyon College. Email to query Juniper about poetry book reviews.