Susan Slaviero’s new chapbook A Wicked Apple gleams sharp as the edge of a knife blade. She whisks the reader through a breathtaking catalog of female deities and creatures of legend. Who else but Slaviero could so vividly describe the Egyptian goddess of order visiting a modern supermarket? It can be forgiven if the reader overlooks her technical competence and beautiful sense of music, because the poems are so just so engaging and fun to read. In “The Noir Wife,” she deadpans:
She brained this guy in his own kitchen. Iced him in his fedora and bedroom slippers, left him lying coiled and ribboned, a slice of film. (2)
The volume quivers with violence and blood, from Adam’s “sucking chest wound” (1) to the scream in Vesta’s pocket (19). As with her full length debut Cyborgia, a feminist theme is central. However, whereas Cyborgia’s female robots are often victims, Slaviero empowers the heroines of A Wicked Apple. Instead of being creations, they create and tend to dominate their surroundings.
Knives litter the landscape, both in the content and construct of the poems. Eleven of the volume’s 20 pieces close in shorter stanzaic construction than the stanzas preceding the endings. In “Ma’at Visits the Supermarket on a Wednesday” and “Aurora Contemplates Seven Years of Marriage,” for example, both pieces consist primarily of quatrains, with tercet and couplet endings, respectively. Other poems constructed mainly of couplets and tercets end with single lines. In “Sedna Describes Her Last Winter as a Birdwife,” Slaviero hones the close:
my father’s frantic blade and the storms of my wing-winded husband, I see
my knuckles bloom into belugas, one hand signaling—
wraith, raven, rain. (18)
Throughout A Wicked Apple, Slaviero sharpens and strops and tightens her lines into glinting, impeccable blades. For instance, in “Rose Red, on Sibling Rivalry,” she brandishes these lines to close the poem:
I brew a witch’s tonic to mute her indigo eyes: the heart of a doe, the beard of an imp. A pinch of salt. Go to sleep, pale sister. I’m red as a wicked apple, as a whore’s shoe. (Slaviero, 14)
Underscoring the theme of sharpness, Slaviero uses various words to denote cutting at least 30 times. These terms include suture, sever, and trident, as well as the more common slice, blade, and sword.
One interesting twist on this theme is that three of the poems include references to tongues being sliced out, indicating a violent, irrevocable imposition of silence on the victims. In “Melpomene, on Raising Daughters,” Slaviero writes:
. . . the nubile one approached, that sparrowchested seductress
who thinks she can outsing me. (Girls need a stern hand, a firm tongue.) (15)
None of the voiceless victims are the heroines. There will be no silencing these women.
Slaviero opens the collection with a piece inspired by Eve in the Garden of Eden. In “The Botanist,” Eve is the observant one, the namer of things:
Everything bleeds. The peeled pulse, empty vine-sockets, the shed skin of copperheads that indicate the arrival of new shoots. I name each bud according to my own thorned tongue: Moon-and-Stars, Cream of Saskatchewan. (Slaviero, 1)
This piece is reminiscent of Susan Donnelly’s poem “Eve Names the Animals,” in which she has a similar take on Eve’s dominance over Adam:
I swear that man never knew animals. Words he lined up according to size,
while elephants slipped flat-eyed through water. (4)
Similarly, the goddesses and characters assume positions of authority. Even as Sedna’s father betrays her in “Sedna Describes Her Last Winter as a Birdwife,” her demise makes her stronger. Similarly, Atropos wields her power as one of The Fates in “The Moirae Speak of Time, Work,” stating:
. . . I follow my Saturnine
impulses, the bladeflick of my fingers like sideways rain. (Slaviero, 21)
Inanna, the Mesopotamian goddess of war and sexual love, embodies the power that Slaviero explores. In “Inanno Plays Blackjack at the Stardust Casino,” the goddess describes the dealer:
Without that uniform, she’d be translucent as lotus petals; I imagine her spun hairweb blending with blueblack sky – she could outfly a crane, strip the points from a Chinese star. (Slaviero, 22)
Slaviero opines that any woman contains diety-like potential. In the card dealer, Inanno perceives:
At home, I bet she’s got kingfishers, jimsonweed tea. She expands – a red giant, about to shatter. I know the chemistry of stardust . . . (Slaviero, 22)
But for all its blood, its violence, its knives, one can’t help but appreciate how much fun this collection is to read. One can hear Slaviero laugh, even shriek with us, as we witness the inhabitants of her feminist pantheon slice and dice and slit their way through the book. Her descriptions are delicious ( “. . . I’m / bloody aneurisms, / squidfingered with poison / ink . . . “) (Slaviero, 17). Her eye is incisive (“ . . . Plumes of heartblood // like waterlilies blooming, / reddening the surface.”) (Slaviero, 9). Through it all, her tone is playful as a viper in her expert hands, hissing as it grins and motions to us. “Here,” it gestures from the bough. “Taste this.” (Slaviero, 1)
References Donnelly, Susan. Eve Names the Animals. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1985.
Raised in South Florida, Paul David Adkins lives in New York.