Ely Shipley. Boy with Flowers. New York, New York: Barrow Street Press, 2008. $15.95 paper (ISBN 0-9728302-5-1), 84 pages.
Reviewed by Esther Lee
A scrim—a gauzy curtain often used in theater—can simultaneously reflect and filter light, resulting in a delicate, porous visibility from either side. In his debut poetry collection, Boy with Flowers—winner of the 2007 Barrow Street Press Book Award, selected by Carl Phillips—Ely Shipley achieves a similar intimacy in his treatment of the performative “gauze” of our notions of identity in order to explore the complex perceptions of transgender experience. In Boy with Flowers, the speaker’s self-recognition shifts, as if it were a light reflecting against the cubist body, which is alluded to in the speaker’s remark about the moon that “...glitters dully, but only / if I tilt / my head just so.” The recognition of the self becomes a bewildering, subterranean dreamscape, like a “milky shadow shaped like a door,” whereas the looking and perceiving committed by others is often stifling and interrogatory.
Occasionally veering toward surrealism but always returning to the sensual, these poems jolt us back to the fierceness of the lived experience, of the sublime and of terror, and the hinterlands of memory. If “light is / only a gauze, hanging inside so many / strange faces...,” then Shipley’s arresting and lyrical poems combine the emotive motifs of lighting and the social masks we wear, along with the film technique of montage; thus illuminating the mirrored layers of our own complicated psychology.
In the opening poem, “After the Carnival,” a scene of disorientation ignites dizzying tension, palpable as the memory of a traumatic accident, which provokes a feeling of impending disaster as it unfolds in slow motion:
It’s night. Each of us wears
a mask. I am
the pig, and you
the hawk. Children hide,
folding into their mothers’
skirts, as we kiss
one another and sometimes
them. Beak and snout smear
spread open lines of red
And later in the poem, the manipulation of breath takes on a panicked, eerie tone when the “you” in the poem, during an attempt to avoid drowning, instead becomes smothered, ironically, by a forced kiss:
at thirteen, a high school boy
held your head
under water at Lytle Creek. Inside
you couldn’t swim
so clutched his neck, his arm
until he lifted
your face, smashing his face
into your mouth, sucking
Like “birds siphoning secrets from the lungs of men,” the breath is portrayed as a kind of flitting presence in the throat, one that may carry secrets of the speaker. Whether it be during a moment of visceral panic while staring at the “eye of God” of a disco ball (“tiny / in squares until I can’t breathe”) or while sipping from a wine glass that is “the shape of someone’s / breath, held,” the breath—as a means of coping or source of physical comfort—hovers inside the throat, and serves as a liminal conduit through which the breath channels between the speaker’s body and the outside world, where, ultimately, the voice might “choke / out its notes, its high-pitched / scream, its pop.”
Whether implied or overt, the violence that the poems address pervades the speaker’s reality and diverts away from the innocence of when the speaker, at ten, “played barefoot / in the backyard desert...took naps in the patch of grass / we kept trying to grow” to a stark eeriness, as illustrated in the dream of “Boy with Flowers”:
...Today I wake from another dream
in which I have a beard, no breasts
and am about to go skinny-dipping
on a foreign beach with four other men.
I’m afraid to undress, won’t take off my shorts,
so they grab me, one at each ankle, the other two
by each wrist. I am a starfish hardening.
The sun hovers above, a hot
mirror where I search for my reflection.
I close my eyes. It’s too intense. The light
where my lover is tracing fingertips
around two long incisions in my chest. Each sewn tight
with stitches, each a naked stem, flaring with thorns.
In this collection, such remembered moments of crushing violence often trigger temporal shifts, transporting the reader from Echo Park and the dyke clubs of LA to “a window somewhere in Montana,” or driving in a ’76 Chevy Monte Carlo—places where fists are bitten and a roll of dimes can be transformed into a weapon with which to punch “while my own fingers got crushed / over and over again, between / all I held and wanted / to push away.”
Boy with Flowers attempts to remember what is unbearable by casting it against the intimate scrim of language, of intimate moments held up to the light. Objects that we may take for granted are de-familiarized, and, ultimately, we are left with the speaker’s acute wonderment of the “body of the bird against the glass,” a cigarette’s “long finger of broken ash,” of magnolia petals that “would no longer be / white, but darkening everywhere / they’d been touched.”