Reviewed by Alexis David
by Shilo Niziolek
Querencia Press, LLC
October 2022, Paperback, 172 pages, ISBN-13: 979-8986078892
In Shilo Niziolek’s arresting memoir, Fever, she invites the reader to wander with her around the meaning of desire. Told in a lyric essay, where paragraphs rub up against each other, leaving empty rooms of thought, the book has a ghostly presence. Niziolek writes like a hawk circling its prey: writing about her body as something in opposition to herself: “I wonder what it’s like to have a sexual body, not just a sexual being trapped inside an unsexual body” (14). There is friction between the narrator’s quick ability to fall in love with different people and wanting to give and receive love, and the resistance she has from a body that has had an ectopic rupture, vulvar vestibulitis, and built up trauma from domestic violence. This is not a simple story. This is the story of a person fascinated by this continual opposition between wanting and not being able to fulfill the wanting: unused desire.
My reading experience of Fever was equivalent to gulping down water after a long run. I read it with haste and curiosity. I became fascinated by desire and the way Niziolek intellectualizes her vulnerability, placing her own story among the work of contemporary writers, like Sarah Manguso, Jay Ponteri, and Mary Oliver, among others. This is a literary text that is aware of the context it will be placed in, but at the same time, nervous about the consequences of publishing it, “I’m terrified this book will get picked up and my life will implode. I’m terrified this book will get picked up and my life won’t implode” (129). It is a book that is asking for change, but also fearful of what examining the truth will bring, while at the same time, it feels there is no other solution than to write it into a book.
When I first requested the book for review, I was drawn to a description that said it was a memoir told in essays. Memoir excites me: a space where writers can experiment, wander, circle, and play. Niziolek’s writing is lyrical. It dances between ideas, swinging this way and that, but still creating narrative arcs: the discovery of her own bisexuality, the conflicting view of her partner (grateful for his kindness but also dreaming about past lovers) and the continual desire for something else, some big change. She writes, “I’m trying not to explode my life” (128) then goes on to talk about the kindness of her partner—his empathy for others, his ability to cry at movies, their shared dogs. But, still there is this other desire: her life at the New England MFA. I went to this same MFA program. There was an eerie feeling while reading these parts because I knew exactly these feelings: all these people with a shared interest in writing in a little New Hampshire town. I empathize with her romanticization of her life, “I’m trying not to think about . . .a life where I might walk to the college in this small town, teach classes on literature and writing, return down the river path to a small home where I drink tea by a window and read all through the night” (128). I often dream of being a professor who gets to be completely surrounded by writing and theory and students. I can feel her desire; I know it as my own.
This book has a meta quality, a self-awareness. Niziolek writes:
I am using this manuscript to explore the options of having options, of going back in time to other loves, of remembering myself as not sick, a dream of creating in myself an immoral person, a person whose sexual being surpasses that of what she is, what I actually am. In it I can be the type of person who thinks about having an affair, who is having an affair, who has sex with other people in her dreams, who becomes a mountain of a woman. Then, when I am ready, I can close the laptop and walk away. I can set the dream person aside (93).
This is a quality that I find often in memoir. The acknowledgment that writing the memoir is a type of freedom and a way to process and heal from one’s own life. Self-expression can be a means to confront, to intellectualize, and to understand a conflict in one’s personal life. Memoir, by its very nature, is personal. Niziolek takes the personal and keeps spinning it around, like a quarter before it falls. She uses conversations from co-workers, other texts and lived experience to keep questioning desire. Until finally, at the end, she returns to the Jay Ponteri quote about a tree “whose bark is lime green.” She ends with herself glistening in the morning sun: alive and still yearning but now she is the green bark, “hunter, sage, tea, emerald, mossy mellow” (167). Niziolek becomes the green which is so desired. The ending is similar to a poem’s turn: a quick paradigm shift. She becomes the object of desire: the green bark. There is a freshness here: a paragraph of a memoir she is building until it breaks finally with the morning dew. This memoir is fresh, fertile and glowing. It’s wandering and wondering. Desire becomes the lifeblood of the book, asking what good is a life lived without desire pounding around us, confusing and complicating us, asking us to want more and more
About the reviewer: Alexis David is a poet and fiction writer who holds a BA from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, an M.Ed from Canisius College and an MFA from New England College. Dancing Girl Press published her chapbook The Names of Animals I Have Loved. Additionally, she has placed reviews of poetry for Tupelo Quarterly, North of Oxford, Compulsive Reader and The Masters Review. Links to her other published work can be found here: https://alexisldavid.wixsite.com/alexis.