The Gorilla Press, 2016
REVIEWED BY MADARI PENDAS
Cathleen Chambless’ debut poetry collection Nec(Romantic) makes you feel like you’ve entered a dream, and with each page you’re moving along the thoughts you rarely visit, perhaps avoid. A macabre simulacrum of the waking world. It is a world where you are attracted to the things that would normally frighten and repulse you. This phantasmagoric book is not only a celebration of love, but of its equally magnificent counterpart, death. A love of the dead, a love for the dead, and love that brings death. It challenges our traditional notions of love and explores the idiosyncrasies that make each romance special.
In “44 Ways to Measure You and Me” all the unique encounters between two lovers is enumerated. The experiences that have endeared the lover to the speaker are also the same self-destructive qualities that drain and destroy the love: “17. I said yes, my head on your chest. 18. In poems I wrote you. 19. In songs you wrote me. 20. In secrets of cc’s. Syringes, and plastic baggies. 21. Hepatitis writhing 22. You said I would never find you, but I always did. 23. In parks. 24. On street corners. 25. In a cemetery.” Here is a love that avoids clichés, that is not a re-imagining of a John Keats Ode, but a gritty portrait of two flawed human beings, whose love is not measured in years, but by distinct shared experiences. The reader sees the totality of a relationship captured on a single page—from the first meeting “1.January 28, 2013,” to it’s conclusion, “44.When I leave before you die.” Despite the tragedies engendered by this love, the speaker still manages to find the beauty within the melancholy.
“Skeletons” is another poem that challenges the “happily-ever-after” notion of love we’ve been inculcated with. The whimsical piece depicts two skeletons relaxing in lounge chairs who symbolize a dishonest and feigned relationship, which is further implied by the final line, “That happens when you lock/ them [skeletons] in the closet for too long.” “Skeletons” demonstrates one of “Nec(Romantic)’s” most outstanding qualities, it’s pairing of outré visuals with humor and impactful conclusions. The amalgamation between realism and absurdity has a haunting and memorable effect, similar to a Joan Mirò painting.
The collection devotes itself to the macabre and the ways individuals interact with the paranormal and magical. The poems “Egyptian Fairy Voodoo” and “On Extracting a Human Heart” are written from the perspectives of fairies and deities, and explore humanity from an otherworldly perspective, thus providing a rare commentary on mankind.
In “On Extracting a Human Heart,” the speaker asks: “How do I extract a human heart?/ With time and trust./ Ask the gods why words will make humans peel open.” Here humankind is dissected from above, where language can be weaponized and used to “peel open their chests.” In “Egyptian Fairy Voodoo,” the fairies view humans from a lateral perspective, and provide insight from a quasi-contemporary standpoint.
The devotion to the painful, ritualistic, and otherness of existence inspires a deeper connection between reader and author. Shared traumatic experiences, whether real or re-imagined, bond the reader and the writer who converge on the page. The emotional intensity of each poem demonstrates to the reader that they are in fact getting more than just a collection of poetry, they are receiving a “gem out of her heart,” as is put in “Necromantic Glossary for the Practitioner.”
The book also examines the definitions and social constructs of womanhood. It challenges the current notions of femininity and deliberately chooses to spell woman with a ‘Y.’ These choices and statements offer another view of romance—love for oneself, inclusive of one’s gender and identity. In the emotive poem, “SHAVED PUSSY POETRY,” a vagina pleads against being shaved, and the pain of the act is viscerally recalled, “Stubble & skin snag between metal teeth/ bloody bubbles run down legs/ her pussy too sore to make love.” Here the organ that is essential for making love, receives none. It is tortured by its owner in order to comply with a modern conviction that women must be smooth and soft.
The poems that discuss feminism, like “MODERN DAY F*WORD,” and “Why I spell it with a Y,” highlight the need to love women not because they are extensions of men, or a means to glorify them, but because of the unique space they occupy in the universe. They are not men without penises, as Freud described them, but separate beings. The artwork in the book emphasizes this point by portraying the female form in nontraditional and startling ways. In one image a beclouded woman stands in the foreground while headlights shine behind, in her arms are sheets that create the illusion of wings. Here woman is ethereal and vague. In another tree branches sprout from her body and she stands centered. Here woman is an evolving being that grows farther from her origin.
If one dissects the title of the collection, “Nec(romantic),” it is syntactically obvious that romantic occupies greater space than the prefix “necro.” Such is the case with the subject matter. The book is greatly influenced by, and devoted to, death and the mysticism surrounding it; but more importantly this book is about love. Every iteration, every strange and confounding form love occupies, and the ways love can inhabit, and destroy us.
In “Little Boxes,” we explore a love that causes emptiness, instead of assuaging it—“even with a lover/how alone I was, how alone I still am.” We explore addiction, the most heightened form of love. An addiction is to be enamored. “Nec(romantic)” entwines the compulsions of addiction with those of love to demonstrate their similarities, and their shared abilities to ruin lives. In “Little Boxes,” the lover’s addiction leads to his demise, while the speaker’s love for the addict leads to hers. “A phantom wearing a person/ suit is what you became, with/all of that heroin in your veins./ At night I’d put my head/ on your chest and feel startled/ when I heard your heartbeat. I/ forgot you were a human being.”
I did not read this book the way I read other books, as a passive consumer, who has errant and irrelevant thoughts while reading. I was haunted. I felt the weight of the book on my life, as a specter in its own right. I was also overcome with a tenderness for the things in my own life which are strange and morbid, and which I fear writing about. I found Chambless’ fearlessness and audacity inspiring. She has turned her traumas and curiosities into a special universe within these pages. She frees the skeletons from her closet and props them up for all the world to see.
Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer and poet living in Miami. Her works focus on the surreal and absurd aspects that accompany living in an exile community, and the inherited identity crisis of being a Latina in America. She has received literary awards from Florida International University, in the categories of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in the Accentos Review and the Miami New Times.