In Sarah Lilius’ GIRL (Dancing Girl Press, 2017), the girls carve out pieces of themselves in a world of harassers and violence, in a world of Trump (where not denouncing a violation is the same as condoning it). Each poem focuses on a different girl—really just all versions of ourselves. There is the twenty-five year old girl, the party girl, the feminist, the frightened girl, the medicated girl, the girl who spills her own blood to write messages, etc. And these girls are glorious.
Not only are these poems spilled blood, but mingled with gold and purpose and guts. The soul and strength splash across the page: at the scenes of wrongdoing, of struggle, of love lost, but also of pain vanquished. There is the girl who dances to David Bowie, the girl who reflects on her younger self and has learned a few things, the girl who fucks a Republican for fun.
In this #MeToo environment, Lilius begins her chapbook with beauty outside, with safety in nature, with a tree canopy. No one else is present except the “Man Living in the Tree.” Placing this poem first is a reminder that it’s not all bad. Walk and commune with Mother Nature—the first mother on the earth, the first “Girl.” Feel safe, alone in the woods. The Man Living in the Tree invites the girl to chat while he picks his teeth but he doesn’t look her in the eye. He’s almost been alone for too long. Maybe this girl’s company will save him. Even for five minutes.
In “An Ordinary Girl Meets a Man Living in a Tree,” Lilius writes:
I can see a scar across his bare chest,
just white enough to be called
This poem has a dreamy quality. We expect the environmentalist man to be magical, a shaman floating above the earth, but maybe he is just a man who reminds the speaker that she used to have the option to climb trees, even if she left that up to her brother. The speaker seems to leave the woods changed, maybe thinking of a more carefree time, thinking of what it’s like to give everything up for something bigger. Something outside our bodies.
Lilius perfectly captures the “game” of a harasser in “A 25 Year Old Girl Meets a Cat-Calling Man.” Lilius gives the reader the breakdown of all the names he calls her: “BABY. CHICK.” Then he says, “PUSSY” and “TITS.” Beauty is not discussed. With these words Lilius points out that the harasser attempts to dismantle the girl into parts. What if she turned it around, said words to him like, DICK and MOUTH. Lilius depicts how this reversed action never wins. That the men are engaged at this point, get turned on, are getting attention. The opposite is achieved. This girl feels small, just wants to get away, yet he is there, waiting every day at lunch. When we read this poem, we are not even shocked. We nod in recognition—we think, “Me too.”
Whereas some of the poems in this collection are narrative and sobering, Lilius wows when she opts for the lyric. Like a song that was lost and then found in disarray, some poems are misshapen dreams, an eternal Alice in Wonderland in danger. In “Frightened Girl in the Circus,” a girl who works at the circus, who is in danger every night, receives some advice:
Girl remember your heart isn’t there for others to eat…
…Like all the pages in all the books, beauty is beauty, not for sale
Girl, collect the bottles with all the pills, just in case
Keep the hard liquor in the old cabinet, just in case
Keep your elbows and knees sharpened, the ink…
This girl is surviving, has found a way, even if she escapes in the next town. She has liquor and hardened elbows to back her up.
All of Lilius’ girls are survivors in some way. They bounce into others, like David Bowie, a therapist who “manages her like a medicine cabinet.” These girls are testing the limits of their personalities like trying on clothes: today it’s a red dress; tomorrow it’s a concert t-shirt.
The world might take pieces of these girls, but they survive, regrouping in the dark.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in Midwest and is the author of four full-length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, which tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition, and The Vitamix and the Murder of Crows is forthcoming in 2018. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of 10 chapbooks. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Prelude, Cleaver, Yalobusha Review, decomp, and Inter/rupture. Visit her website.