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Becca Klaver on Daniela Olszewska

The Partial Autobiography of Jane Doe by Daniela Olszewska (dancing girl press, 2008)



Who is Jane Doe, and what does it mean that she chooses “Yes”? In the first poem of Daniela Olszewska’s chapbook, The Partial Autobiography of Jane Doe, our protagonista is found clutching a note that reads:


Do you like me?

Circle: YES NO


By the final line of the book, after setting up one of her most elaborate sideshows yet, Jane bids farewell to us with this: “I switched the camera to the Yes setting.”


Throughout the outrageous and ghastly poetic course in between, we learn that Jane’s world is one that simultaneously stages and subverts the idea of the carnival, and the childlike fun and subliminal danger the site implies. It is a world that wants to “institute a tax on public displays of precociousness”; a world in which Jane patches holes in hydrogen bubbles, catches her hair bow on a Sears Tower lightning rod, builds a house of “lick-able wallpapers and edible floors,” and mutilates genitalia only to later soak it in gin. It is also a world that remembers a toxic Eastern European landscape of radiation, deformity, and death, and one that replays those disasters through a girl’s body. Not a woman’s, mind you, but a body in-between, mercurial, and volatile as a nuclear reactor, growing third nipples and unicorn horns.


It is also recognizable, to those of us who hail from or live there, as the world of the postindustrial American Midwest: the executive park with robotic deer; the Blue Man Group-esque antics of The Pet Psychic; Katherine H. and Mr. Fluffernutter, her cat, of Rockford, IL. If the poems are funhouses, the eerie sprawl of midwestern suburbia is the midway in which they congregate. We also see the United States through the eyes of foreigners (the Doe family has a “real language” and a “shrunken surname”), and via the Does, we witness the iconography of the American landscape both fractalized (“the extended / family all four-leafed”) and kaleidoscoped (“a cross-breeding between dinner and a ye olde pastime”).


And what of Jane, then? A carnie? A freak? Wherever Jane goes, she is obsessed by acts of construction and creation. We see her challenge The Almighty in “God vs. Jane Doe,” after which we’re left with the pleasure of asking a question as deliriously absurd as: What wins—God’s “unicorn nipples” or Jane’s “burning bouncing baby ball”? If Jane’s world is both recognizable and askew, this is because she won’t leave it be. Like a personal home decorator on Adderall (though Vicodin seems to be Jane’s drug of choice), Jane will not accept the banal. In this way Jane stands for every poet worth her salt, and every artist. She insists on the glitzy, the macabre, and the bizzaro, and when she is at the height of her powers—and of course here I mean Olszewska as well as Doe—she sees straight through her subjects, and tells her story through them, too. The pleasure of watching Olszewska curate Jane’s show is that the newfangled-imagined is permitted to appear side-by-side with the recognizable-real.


Indeed, above all, these are poems of the imagination—an imagination with no lid on the subconscious. So I like to think that when Jane switches the camera to the Yes setting, she is accepting the mission that she’s trained for throughout the course of the chapbook: she is choosing her x-ray lens, choosing to keep looking straight through the world, and then stepping back to report to us on its guts.

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