« The Mimic Sea by Erica Bernheim | Contents | Slope Move by Hanna Andrews »

Wolf and Pilot by Farrah Field

Four Way, 2012

Review by John Steen

 

Fed up with hearing from the “great men” of history that “man is wolf to man,” the four sisters of Farrah Field’s second book of poems remind us, in a reversal of the old maxim’s syntax as well as its gender, that mothers can be wolves to girls. In poems that oscillate between the dire and the daily, and in an array of fully-formed voices that suggests poetic theater, Wolf and Pilot tracks the relationship between family life and public life from an earlier starting point than bildungsroman, and it does so, masterfully, for multiple characters. As a poetic band of sisters trailing low clouds of magic and mystery, Wolf and Pilot invites comparison to Ashbery’s Girls on the Run and the imagination of Henry Darger, the outsider artist whose stories and images of prepubescent girls inspired it. But, unlike Ashbery’s riotous camp, these girls sacrifice none of their intensity to the dreamlike atmosphere, as Julia Morstad’s excellent cover art for the book suggests. As a supplement, imagine Kiki Smith depicting Ovid’s mortals as girls of the 80s: there’s a strangeness in the fashion, sure, but it only intensifies the juxtaposition of feminine vigor and violent injustice.

 

Wolf and Pilot tracks the collective childhood of girls raised like beasts by a mother who exposes them to a cycle of sadistic neglect and shocking cruelty. They complain of missing out on other girls’ normality (“We were never sick / or in the woods”) as a preface to their mother’s threats: “A clitoris could be pinned down / like a dissected frog the witch said.” This, painfully, appears in a poem titled “Bedtime Stories,” whose closing line suggests that these girls already understand the most difficult aspect of their own upbringing.  “Once upon a time all adults used to be children,” they assert, recognizing that the story of abuse has no simple or recent origin. Like a mother, it came from someone else. Like a mother, the girls seem to understand, it can reproduce.

 

What’s masterful and redemptive about Wolf and Pilot is that this mother, apart from the two poems she speaks, does not dominate the book’s atmosphere—the girls do. In the first poem of the book, the sisters run away from home and, against the usual grain, never return there. First, living on their own, hiding in trees and burying themselves in holes, they attempt to escape both the physical and psychological fates to which they seem, as they recount the past, to have been destined. Then, taking matters into their own hands, they decide to enlarge the family.

 

After hiding out and discovering they can care for themselves, they take up with an unlikely pair of surrogates—the detective charged with finding them and their teacher. When one of the girls announces, “We shall call them parents,” she’s playfully ventriloquizing the Creator’s self-congratulatory christening of his own work  and, quite seriously, performing an investiture of parental power. “She says no one chooses her own mother / but she’s wrong.” By creating their own guardians, maybe they can reverse the logic that subjected them to unspeakable cruelty and take control of the means of reproduction. Maybe. The remainder of the volume depicts this new and sometimes comic family romance in the persistent shadow of the old one. The girls display unnerving resilience alongside an emergent sexual and intellectual independence: the oldest can say, in one of the most powerful lines of the book, “I give myself up to this world of freedom.” But, as the line also hints, their escape butts up against a continuing vulnerability, a feeling of being both exhilaratingly untethered and, therefore, dangerously targeted. As the teacher recognizes, their past accounts for the naiveté of their hope and the timidity of their behavior:

 

Girls are prey to everything.

They’re only daughters for a little while.

They think kindness could spare their lives.

Their tiny lives, tiny as wrists.

Don’t stay in a house without electricity.

Never walk around during dreams

and never throw a piece of paper

on the ground. Suck blood

from a cut finger

before someone else does.

 

Wolf and Pilot has rightly been described as a novel in verse. Instead of a sequential narrative, though, each poem glances off events like a line tangent to a circle; the collection takes shape as the hurricane-like lattice of these fragments. And like the rotation of such a storm on an ever-moving axis, the lives of the girls advance with torsional, unruly fury, as the poems track their sometimes desperate, sometimes willful responses to adult events. The titles of the poems—complete, often epigrammatic sentences—demonstrate the heroic efforts of young and wounded minds to explain their environment: “Tall People Have Hurt Knees” describes the mix of curiosity and pain, both mental and physical, that imbues the girls’ first exposure to sex. Much of the pathos of the volume derives from our recognizing ingenious creative excess in describing violence that almost covers over the effects of actually understanding it:

 

Our mother makes nightmares for us

with a lamp and a bunny.

She says you can electrocute someone

from any place on the body.

 

She threw one of her feet at us and never lost her balance.

 

The sisters learn everything, experience everything they shouldn’t, and then articulate it in a language filled with fancy and with violence. In this way, they both indict the mother’s cruelty and reveal their resilience. In “Maybe You Have More Than One Private Parts,” one sister reveals that she has gained sexual knowledge by being exposed to her mother’s perversions:

 

We know what took place on the lower levels.

 

It lasted for a long time,

with you and others in the middle,

spilling your drinks in each other.

 

 

There could never be too many

ready to act on your fake body.

 

And premature exposure as the price of precocity is the name of Wolf and Pilot’s game. When the second daughter, Emaline, develops a crush, it’s not on a child her age, but on “the detective,” a surrogate father figure who dates the girls’ teacher. On the one hand, it’s the crush of long childhood summers, (“This is what it’s like to be bored in summer…/ with no approaching future / except kiwi”) but on the other, there are empty bottles, cigarettes, and firearms on the stage of this ersatz family romance, and what Roland Barthes calls the galvanizing sight of the beloved occurs for Emaline, “at the county records office.” Nevertheless, when she defends her crush, she does so with a breathtaking intensity: “I can’t help whom I think about the most.”

 

The dizzyingly innovative voices in which these experiences take on life—precocious but authentically childish, even decidedly girlish—detail the pleasures and the rigors of living on edge, surviving on the verge of (an all too premature) adulthood. The fact that this precarious site generates not only perils but a kind of beautiful and stubborn strength speaks to the complexity of Field’s characters and the subtlety of her vision. What kind of wolf does the title suggest, after all? While the girls claim to be “variations of wolves at best,” they aren’t the big and bad kind. They’re more like the young Rimbaud, who, in A Season in Hell, described desire as a wolf’s last defense against starving: “Like him I consume myself.” The girls of Wolf and Pilot, too, are hungry for the world of freedom, but their sisterly journey aims to consume and sublimate the bare, animal life within before it eats them from inside.

 

« The Mimic Sea by Erica Bernheim | Contents | Slope Move by Hanna Andrews »