‘Smith’s First Book of Poems Too Good for Snappy Headlines’ by Ray McKenzie

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Has anyone ever told you a story that failed to impress? They probably tried to save face with something like, “you should’ve been there” or “you’d get it if you knew So-And-So”. Among the stories told in this collection, there is not one such failure. This book takes you there, makes it so you know So-And-So. This book is the barstool, low lighting, and neat whiskey that facilitates—nay, necessitates—good storytelling.

Unruly is a spirited introduction to Elysia Lucinda Smith, who she is, what it means to be her. It chronicles the halcyon days of youth, and juxtaposes them with the challenges that, upon reflection, make us who we are. In terms of VH1 programming from the 90s, this book is equal parts Unplugged and Behind the Music.

Unruly gets you familiar with Elysia in a transparent way. I wish more people I know would write books like this so that I could keep them on my shelf and give them a read through at my leisure. If I’m a creep for wanting to keep my friends on a shelf like one of those Christmas elves with the spindly limbs and the painted face, then so be it. If I share a few lines, maybe you’ll understand my obsession with Smith’s work.

“Let Me Tell You How I Got These Scars” reads like a rock anthem to Friday night and hard-and-fast youth. In a choice line, we see our hero “emerged in a foam//of PBR, backlit by a Shell sign, lifting//the two slick bodies.” We have rebirth, cheap beer, Big Oil, salvation, and sex in a big-picture, single sentence Mexican standoff. This is a poem with powerful images and a concrete understanding of character and place, though the speaker may be a bit unreliable–I appreciate the scar story as a medium that bears embellishment.

There are a number of poems in this collection concerned with the occult, the supernatural. “Summoning Spell” is such a poem, with much to say and a playful delivery. The poem begins, “For this ritual: Get kicked out of a bar, get fucked, buy some Hostess//Donettes, and drink a shower beer.” Indeed, there is powerful sorcery at work here! The requirements of this spell are unusual; they defy one’s expectations of a magical incantation, and at the same time, they are utterly familiar, human, and humbling. This poem leaves the reader with a question of what has been summoned, a question for further research (with donettes and shower beer).

There are poems in this collection that deal with the challenges of being brought up in a conservative, religious community. “Ornament” features a speaker that has begun to question that upbringing, as her “mother purses her purse//at the little statue of Our Lady//of Guadalupe.” This icon of modesty “blushes//in ‘Hot Damn’ with lipstick//from Wet n Wild to match.” We see puberty and formative ideas on womanhood being put in close conversation with Sunday Mass. The poem leaves us on a Black Mass of sorts, the adolescent sleepover, inquiring, “Come on, Girl//they say at the slumber party,//didn’t anyone teach you//how to curl your hair?” This poem is the innocent finger that points to hypocrisy, spoons out a hole in the soil of tradition, and sows the seeds of doubt, of rebellion.

In addition to the aforementioned poems, there are sex poems, place poems, stories, open letters, poems “in conversation with original artwork by poets around the country”, poems that defy categorization. This fantastic variety, coupled with the defiant spirit of these works, is the heart of Unruly. It is (and I don’t say this lightly) a beautiful mess that reflects upon the experiences that shape an individual. I can’t do this book justice by discussing three poems, but they stood out to me, and there’s something here for everybody.

To keep this objective, it is important to note that that I consider Elysia a friend and mentor. She was the TA for my first fiction class at UMass Boston, and established the UMB Writer’s Community. She organized open mic nights at local bars, which gave many students their first opportunity to read their work publicly. Elysia read drafts of my thesis. She is part woman, part myth, all legend. The legend lives, in her totality, in this book. Her work begs to be read, and you’re doing yourself a disservice by not picking up a copy of her first book for yourself, or for the young woman/poet/young-woman-poet in your life. Unruly is available from BlazeVOX Books and can be found here.

Ray McKenzie’s poetry has appeared in Mannequin Haus and New Pop Lit, and his prose has appeared in Fluland. He Tweets @TheImmortalDrab and is locked in the throes of a David vs. Goliath struggle with the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure.

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