Every family has a black sheep, an uncle who raves about UFOs and Sasquatch. “There’s one in every clan,” some might opine. However, Stephanie Lenox, in Congress of Strange People, argues that oddballs are normal; the ordinary relative is aberrant. Her case is strong, exhibits convincing. By the time the reader completes Congress, the only question is where he fits within his family’s eccentric spectrum.
Lenox opens with “The Inheritance.” The speaker confesses:
Sunday afternoons Grandfather and I studied the Guinness Book, dog-eared our favorites . . .
Your grandmother is in there, he nudged me. Keep looking. (3)
Family structure is at the volume’s forefront. Of the 13 poems which comprise Section One, nine either have family members included in the title or first line. The other four pieces retain strong familial themes. In “Ode to Nancy,” the speaker outlines her ambivalence to a traditional family:
You had a mother decent enough to die young and leave you the darling of your handsome lawyer father, part orphan, part princess, keen mix of tragedy and privilege . . . (11)
Tension is inherent to domestic life, and Lenox subtly introduces marital discord. The speaker senses problems, but the author resists a heavy hand, employing instead a child’s intuition to explore the conflict. “The Big Island Slides: 1974-75” allows the speaker to observe her parents’ anxious interactions:
. . . Mother gleams as Father fumbles with the projector, hammering it in the dark, his curses muffled by the machine’s warm breathing. (5)
The speaker expands this struggle to include her own sibling rivalries and the parents’ eventual divorce. She also explores a pronounced sense of discontent in “The Mother” and “Fairytale.” Her crimes are minor: teasing dogs and damaging toys. But her sense of awareness dovetails beautifully into Section Two.
On the surface, Section Two addresses individual Guinness Book record holders. Earlier versions of many pieces appear in Lenox’s chapbook The Heart That Lies Outside the Body. But while the poet opens Congress with “Inheritance,” she closes her chapbook with it. This particular shift allows Lenox to expand focus from the novelty of a freak show, found in the chapbook, to the freak show of a family, in Congress. These observations resemble tensions discerned in Megan Snyder-Camp’s Forest of Sure Things. Lenox’s descriptive passages in “Minutes from the First Congress of Strange People” closely resemble Snyder-Camp’s opening poem in Forest of Sure Things, entitled “Sea Creatures of the Deep:”
O sockeye O rock sole O starry flounder O red Irish lord O spiny lumpsucker (1)
More importantly, however, is the familial strain both poets examine, the escapes their imaginations allow them within a childhood torn by conflict. This exploration allows the poets to compose powerful, perceptive work.
Lenox solidifies the sense that oddity is normal in Section Two. “The Amazing Cannonball Couple” underscores this feeling:
I should have been a schoolteacher, she says, climbing into the cannon beside mine. Her helmet glitters, and beneath it, she wags her flame-retardant wig in mock regret . . . (44)
The speaker declares in “Too Much Time on My Hands:” “Whatever I’m making, / I love it -- / I want to marry it.” (37) In “The Collector: A Self-Portrait in Clover,” she claims: “I didn’t know what I was looking for / until I found it . . .” (34)
The desire for respectability, a niche, a home, is a driving factors of Congress. Whether it’s the oldest living male stripper in “Bernie Bares All,” who boasts: “I live for the blush . . .,” (42) or the stoic little person in “Shortest Woman Living,” who declares: “I must endure . . .” (25), the speaker chronicles this quest for respect among society’s forsaken people.
Lenox cinches the familial theme in Section Three. Barriers between oddity and family begin to fall. In “The Question,” the speaker observes:
The question comes out breech, butt-first, suffocating. This is not what I intended, but it survives. (54)
Her perceptions blur further in the next poem, “Miss Manners Says, ‘Gratitude is Not a Natural Reaction to Generosity:’”
The garden slug is marrying all my strawberries— just what kind of wedding is that? (55)
I don’t know how to speak to you. I hardly know the right way to act. Is it indecent of me to want to give you everything? (55)
The speaker even begins to deconstruct in “Mating,” observing: “. . . mosquitoes dance over my skin / taking me, bit by bit, into night’s / warm determined romance.” (57)
“After Uncle Fred Nearly Dies, We Send the Tape to America’s Funniest Home Videos”decisively links the freak show to family dynamics.
It’s clear we like our trampolines taut and ready to dump our dumb asses into the nearest thorny hedge. (59)
She closes the piece: “We want so much for it to be worth something.” (59)
And Lenox’s characters are worth every penny of admission. They are world changers, groundbreakers, these strange mothers and sisters and uncles. The speaker argues in “My Last Poem:”
Wars end: because of me. Peace prevails: because of me. If there’s hope, it’s me. If there’s prosperity, me. Change, me. Love, me. (67)
Herein lies the crux of the collection. Lenox records a kaleidoscopic celebration of individuals with whom she forges a distinct connection despite their being outcasts, oddballs. Nothing is too peculiar, too weird, too eccentric for the poet to shun. Every accomplishment merits a carnival, every record holder deserves a festival, a parade. The very act of living precipitates a standing ovation, as the speaker notes in “The Dance:” “sixteen burning hours I clap my hands.” (40)
Lenox, Stephanie, Congress of Strange People. Airlie Press, 2012 (available for $15)
Lenox, Stephanie, The Heart That Lies Outside the Body. Slapering Hol Press, 2007 (available for $12)
Snyder-Camp, Megan, Forest of Sure Things. Tupelo Press, 2010 (available in paperback and CD)
Paul David Adkins grew up in South Florida and lives in New York.