Aching toward Redemption: a review of Medusa’s Country by Larissa Shmailo

Reviewed by Michael T. Young

Medusa’s Country
by Larissa Shmailo
MadHat Press
2016, 70 pages, $14.95, ISBN: 978-1941196380

It’s been said that there are only two subjects in literature: love and death; Medusa’s Country is the battle between those primal forces. It’s no wonder that battle, and the country where it takes place, are hard given the power the eponymous figure is known for. As the poem “Schweinerei” says of the world, it is “hard, atrocious, and cruel”[i]And what makes the country of this collection especially so is that it is not fantasy, like medusa herself; but rather a steady look at the reality of our own world: a world of war, rape, suicide, where “life is real; and death the realest part” (28).

But let’s delve more carefully, because such a description may give the false impression of depressing teenage verse, and the poetry of Medusa’s Country is far from that. It is rather the poetry of experience and not of innocence. It is a collection of incredibly intelligent and subtle poetry that never loses focus of its themes. It is a poetry that aches toward redemption even as it is bogged down by histories and impulses that cannot be undone. So between the transcendent and the incarnate there is a wrestling for justice.

After torture and rape a child dies, finally;
The suffering of innocents, God’s gaping sore.
Still I pray daily, but I’m mad, you see. (31)

The reach toward love, toward what transcends the pain and suffering of the world, results in an embodiment. That embodiment becomes a confinement, a trap, and thus a kind of failure. As Joseph Brodsky once said, “In poetry, as anywhere else, spiritual superiority is always disputed at the physical level”[ii]. Shmailo’s poems rage at the center of that dispute and thus the governing metaphors tend toward the claustrophobic and crippled.

Your empty heart can’t know love’s blood at all.
You’ll be my heart, a numb, reflexive pleasure
to beat, half-heart, and never know full flexure. (21)

Family history
is largely hysterical mystery.
This old cold sold blow hold on me
is moldy genealogy. (12)

In that “love’s blood,” in that “reflexive pleasure,” that “moldy genealogy,” is a determinism that belies all effort to a transcendent love. And this makes that desire so painfully felt. I’m reminded, at times, of the aridity and emptiness that St. John of the Cross explores in Dark Night of the Soul. Shmailo, in longing to transcend the pain of the world, embraces a totality that inverts ordinary terms:

I love love’s desert and its snow.
I, Shmailo, dervish, a lover signed. (51)

Or as in the first footnote to “Between Eclipses” says, “It is not the grace of salvation you await, but the grace of no salvation” (10).

At the end of the second section, the spiritual dispute surfaces as an aching for an end to the boundaries of the self. And this is where death and love seem to become almost indistinguishable. In the final section of a poem called “War,” we read

Maybe as the last breath—will we know it as last?—as the last
breath goes, we—will we know any we?—we might feel another’s
dying breath that we might know someone else’s as we know our own
death. (38)

In Eastern philosophy and on the subatomic level in science, the boundaries that separate us become tenuous. So, the final section, in the wake of this poem, enters realms of quantum physics and Hinduism.

I’m the field of every being;
parts of me are parts of you. (47)

This is me, it cries, this is me and I die.
We will all speak these words in this way
and then, and till then, what shall I say? (55)

The final section from which these poems come is the collection’s supreme effort toward redemption. But love must ever return to its embodiment and, therefore, a kind of entrapment. Transcendence is not permanent but only part of a cycle.

I will make love to you between rebirths
with penis and womb, with land and sea,
with wind and sun and death. (49)

Buried within that sentence loaded with polysyndeton is the phrase, “I will make love to you . . . with. . . death.” If an orgasm is “le petite mort” one gets the sense from this collection that death is a “grande orgasme,” and the cycle of rebirth returns us to the desires of a body that can’t shake its history or primordial urges. As the collection concludes with the poem that gives the collection its name:

The water will dry and will leave only dust;
I will feel no prick when it does.
The serpentine grass will cover my love
And green growth enshroud what was.

But once a man stood like a statue
Before my cave of trees
His eyes transfixed by my serpents
That hardened, froze, and pleased. (56)

Apart from that return to dust and resolving into bitter memory, it’s important to note the innuendo that plays through the lines, for Shmailo’s poetry is abundant with linguistic wit and wordplay. As here, “I will feel no prick as it does” simultaneously means “prick” as a penis and “prick” as a pang of grief or anguish. And that is equally part of the hardness learned by a hard life. It is forgiveness learned through pain, as in the poem “Rape,” where a footnote tells us:

“Through the ability to understand how little you cared, I grew strong. I forgave and forgot you, like used toilet paper, flushed” (29).

Sexual love and transcendent love become indistinguishable and so transcendence slips away and the harshness of the world crowds in. We are left with terrible longing. But also the beauty of the language, a beauty that has the power to transform the tragic into song.

One of my personal favorite poems in the collection is “Live, Not Die; Live Not, Die.” It’s a marvelous variation on that unwieldy form, the sestina. But more than this, it is a poem of both linguistic and ideational play that is dreadfully serious. Springing off of Hamletand his ponderous question of existence, it goes on to weave in relevant references to Eliot and Marvell, and, of course, questions of love. The poem exemplifies the intelligence that pervades the collection in double-entendres, in deep engagements with literary figures like Nabokov, Tolstoy, or Lermontov, or in pressing literary forms into a painful service as when a limerick is used to talk about a crematorium in a death camp.

It’s important to remember that medusa was once beautiful and was changed into a hideous creature by failing to keep her vows as a priestess of Athena. The pain and suffering traced through Medusa’s Countryare like a series of betrayals that results in a similar curse. The beauty that is written into the language, and painted into the cover art, are undeniable. But the world will not let beauty go untouched. It forces the hard choices, rendering them as compulsions of survival and so torturing the beautiful into the hideous.

In the movement of poems from formal to free verse and back, there is a push against restraints both in theme and form. So Shmailo’s “Cardiac Ghazal” is written in iambic hexameter rather than the more common pentameter and her villanelle “Apostasy” resists any definite meter when scanned and yet the muscular character of the words and rhythms works well with the outrage of confronting the injustice of children raped and driven to suicide.

If I find a disappointment anywhere in the book, it is only in the few moments of failed editing or formatting which falls on the publisher’s shoulders. So, there is a comma or period out of place on occasion and the opening comments by Steve Dalachinsky misquotes one of the poems in a significant way. But these are not, as I say, errors that are to be lain at the poet’s feet. No, in fact, if anything is to be lain at Shmailo’s feet it is the laurel of antiquity in recognition of her mastery as a poet.

[i]Larissa Shmailo, Medusa’s Country(Asheville: MadHat Press, 2017), 34.
[ii]Joseph Brodsky, Less Than One: Selected Essays(New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986), 133.

About the Reviewer: Michael T. Young‘s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was published by Terrapin Books. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint (Finishing Line Press), received the 2014 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award from the New England Poetry Club.  His other collections include The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost (Poets Wear Prada), Transcriptions of Daylight (Rattapallax Press), and Because the Wind Has Questions (Somers Rocks Press).  He received a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Chaffin Poetry Award.  His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous print and online journals including The Cimarron ReviewThe Cortland ReviewEdison Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, The Potomac Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review.  His work is also in the anthologies Phoenix Rising, Chance of a Ghost, In the Black/In the Red, and Rabbit Ears: TV Poems.  He lives with his wife and children in Jersey City, New Jersey.