Wake (Aldrich Press, 2015) by the prolific Laura Madeline Wiseman is one of several publications to come out in the past two years. Co-founder Julie Demoff-Larson and I were both recognized in the acknowledgements of this piece, and there are several pieces in wake that appear in the chapbook Threnody that I reviewed in December 2014.
Threnody introduces the reader to the lady death, an embodiment of the conflicts of female experience. Wake takes that experience in its cold, blue hands and uncovers every home and workplace and beloved childhood story where she exists. Wake is the fear of an awareness of existence, particularly a female existence, which can simultaneously seem familiar and strange and magical and futile.
The collection is split into four parts, with the piece “Before Death,” placed before the beginning of the first section. It is like a forward, “Watch my water. Not too much. Not too little—whatever that means.” Although the sections are not named, there does seem to be a coinciding theme existing within each of them.
In the first section, the reader is introduced to the lady death and her death cart. It is where the reader descends with the Goddess Inanna into the underworld to discover the multitudes of death-women. The second section explores the meaning of the underworld where no one—not even goddesses like Inanna, Princess’ like Snow White, and mythical creatures like a mermaid can escape.
It is in the second section where the trepid introduction to death is tossed away and the narratives become more and more angry, more demanding. The voices change and they begin to ask questions–they begin to wonder. “Self-Mutilators,” is the most direct work in the piece, asking:
“Who wore the first long sleeves and dug a thumb
Through seams to hook the cuff mid-palm to hide?
Who turned off the lights, lit a candle and wrote
That the truth was none of us would eat,
Or should? Who wanted our blood
Seeping into books—dark red proof of what?”
Wiseman, the master blender, mixes these angry voices with the timid, but still questions voices such as those that you find in the third section, which details the definition and exploration of monsters. In “Book of Monsters,” the narrator states, speaking of Where the Wild Things Are:
“I didn’t need jungles to grow up overnight. I didn’t wish for a sailboat to sail me where they roared and gnashed their teeth. I lived there. It’s okay, you’d tell me. How much should I tell you? How much should I let die, stay dead, gone?”
It is these revelations mixed in with the comfort of everything that is familiar, like soft-sheets and home-made meals that give truths like that enough power to penetrate the skin and stay forever.
Monsters gives way to the fourth section, which only has one piece, “Laughing After Death.” It details the invitation to a concert from a man at a restaurant.
“Death’s Monster? I said, touching
the soft creases, the invitation to music thundering.
Yeah, you said, smoothing the folds, It’s for fun.
My head tipped back, through opening with sound.”
A beautifully ironic ending to such a macabre collection.
Even if her allusion to the fly on the wall of her own funeral had been excluded, Wiseman’s Wake would still be one of the most beautiful and comprehensive inquiries into death and existence since Emily Dickinson. Her allusions to real and fictional women of various strengths and weaknesses give the reader a sense of the pervasiveness of the issues and myths of female existence.
Lady death does not just exist, but she is also the action of existing as a female. Women live in a world where we are constantly stripped of power and made into something mythic, like the lady death. Wiseman explores this idea and pushes us headlong into the underworld with her. And, in case you didn’t know, once you enter the underworld, you can never come out.