Tongue by Rachel Contreni Flynn (Red Hen Press)
Tongue is Rachel Contreni Flynn’s second full-length poetry collection. Within this hard-fought, inspiring collection, Flynn masterfully couples the lyric and narrative to create a vivid, unforgettable poetic experience. Her speaker negotiates a childhood fraught with separation, illness, and the mental instability of close relatives. She emerges as an adult still reeling from its disorienting effects. Fortunately, the wounds are not debilitating. Tongue reveals a startling, beautiful blueprint on how one child survives in an indifferent, terrifying world.
Tongue is divided into three sections: “Gnaw,” “Tongue,” and “Hollow.” Each of these words implies ideas of hunger, eating. Hunger is of great importance in the book, as the speaker’s sister suffers from a nearly fatal series of eating disorders. The tension developed due to these illnesses shatters the speaker’s childhood, and it is the catalyst for the bulk of the volume, in which she is sent away to escape family turmoil under the pretense of caring for her ailing grandmother. Flynn conjures extraordinarily raw images of the sister’s suffering, drawing on the book’s Midwestern Indiana backdrop to illustrate her disintegration. In “Gemstone,” perhaps the most stark and remarkable passage in the volume emerges regarding the sister’s sickness:
. . . we found a young cow, its forelegs tangled
in the wire fence, dead and swollen at the lip
of the field. Funny how it stayed that way,
worsening in its sameness. Funny how it starved
then filled up so magnificently on air and time. (pp. 18)
Scarecrows, stick figures, and magpies litter the landscape. The speaker’s eye is unsparing as she witnesses and conveys the effects of repeated disasters on her and her family.
The collection opens with “Another Mirror,” a brilliant poem addressing the speaker’s earliest discovery of evidence regarding her sister’s existence:
When my eyes open at last, I spend weeks
growing immense, squinting at the drawings
left on the walls by the first girl:
stick figures in all postures of play and prayer,
escape and disguise. (pp. 13)
Thereafter, a physical image of mirrors is found throughout the book in the way Flynn arranges poems together on opposing sides of the same page, as well as the internal construct within several individual pieces. With the theme of eating disorders being prevalent, the mirror image is torturous, almost obsessive, as seen in the physical form within the poems “Arrival,” “Elizabeth,” “Belongings,” “The Professor,” and “Forgive Us Our Trespass.”
Since many of the pieces throughout the book have radically different layouts and margins, the poems that do mirror each other on opposite sides of the same page are all the more striking, such as the reflections between “Until” and “The Eye of the Tiger,” “Tiger Lily” and “Elizabeth,” and “Axe” and “Faith.” These physical reflections serve both as accusations against a sister besieged by eating disorders as well as distortions in a carnival house of mirrors, exemplified by “Meanwhile,” where the sister becomes larger and smaller in the space of the same reflection:
the weigh-in displays some slight
improvement. But it’s only water
sucked down before mounting
the scale. The smaller girl
is now larger. The larger girl,
a dissected stump in the basement
in which an axe tilts . . . (pp. 58)
As with a person trapped in a hall of mirrors, the speaker encounters similar disasters again and again.
Other physical layouts mark significant highlights or revelations within the volume. Flynn employs extreme left margins and long lines primarily in Section 2 for poems such as “Love,” “The Work,” “Shot of Morphine,” and “Awake.” These pieces mark important revelations within the section, and are spaced at relatively patterned intervals. “Curse,” on the other hand, is a jarring physical composition unlike anything else in the volume. The poem seems to have exploded on the page, or been scattered by centrifugal force. Flynn uses this eye-catching construction to capture the shock and importance of the speaker’s first period. Additionally, the poet uses a concrete image in the closing poem of each section. “Gift,” which closes “Gnaw,” is another physical oddity within the collection. Flynn employs a slender, linear construct for the piece, a kind of stake or post which marks the end of the section. “Tongue” and “Hollow,” however, end with short, block-style works, giving the impression that a heavy, squat object such as a brick or rock concludes the last two portions.
Confinement is another recurring theme within the book. Sometimes it is portrayed as womblike, as in the poems from Section 1, “Another Mirror,” and section 6 of “Saint Elizabeth:”
. . . no hair anywhere
except the hay-lightness around her head which turns
and her mouth, the only red in the room, begins to scream. (pp. 22)
Other times the confinement is more an imprisonment, such as in Section 2’s poems, “Church, Drunk” and “Tiger Lily”:
The Grandmother wants to see
from her bedroom window what’s
leaving her, and just how far it goes. (pp. 41)
By Section 3, the theme of isolation subsides, though nightmare images persist in the poem “Hollow”:
Like sides of beef hanging
in a hollow tree, she cured us. (pp. 68)
The subject of body image makes Tongue a highly relevant, politically charged book, as incisive and powerful on a personal level as Naomi Wolf’s general treatment of women’s wellness in The Beauty Myth. Flynn strikes at the heart of pornography’s contempt for the feminine in “Sand in the Gas Tank”:
We leafed through the girlie mags and felt fat, ugly, flat. (pp. 14)
But while the sister is busy self-destructing over the idea of weight gain and loss, the speaker emerges with a much healthier outlook regarding self-esteem and worth, neither of which is tied to body image. In “A Shot of Morphine,” the speaker concludes:
. . . When they’re gone, the girl looks at herself naked in the mirror. She is
not injured. She is, in her way, a bit beautiful. (pp. 46)
The speaker’s summer exile with the grandmother turns out to be a respite from the sister’s torturous illnesses and helps cement her as a stable, self-reliant person. In some ways, her experience there is akin to rebirth. “Rum Island” contains womblike images of the speaker alone in a canoe and on a remote island:
no sound. Her skin browns. The girl trusts
the sun not to burn her. (pp. 53)
She is tougher now, less vulnerable, as illustrated in “Awake:”
. . . someone is coming
to take [her tongue]. But now she will
not allow it. She has constructed
all her barricades:
words, smoke, silence. Her safety.
The girl returns to Indiana awake.
Vigilant. Tough as a stump. (pp. 62)
The speaker will face many upcoming challenges, but she will not collapse under the weight of self-hatred or loathing.
In many ways, Tongue assumes the tone and scope of an ancient fairy tale, one straight from the Brothers Grimm. The dark cover sets this theme up masterfully, with its depiction of a little girl clutching a set of keys as she faces a vine-enmeshed door straight from The Secret Garden. The image of a woodcutter, critical to the horrific rendition of Little Red Riding Hood, emerges in “Cloak”:
. . . [The mother] curled
on the floor in a rough cloak,
locked with the phone
in an awful cottage,
the woodsman to come
chop it down. (pp. 16)
The house where the grandmother lives appears straight off the pages of Hansel and Gretl. In the poem “Arrival”
. . . the shadows flare,
then retreat around [the girl].
What’s before her stacks up
at the end of the path:
mountains (pp. 29)
The theme continues in the next poem, “Story,” with the grandmother depicted as bedridden and helpless. Further in the second section, the grandmother appears almost as a conjurer or wicked queen. A gigantic, hideous Maine Coon Cat named Griselda growls and prowls the property. A witch emerges on the grandmother’s land in “Broomstick.” In “The Work,” the speaker ticks off a list of chores she must complete, reminiscent of Cinderella. The mirror image, so important in Snow White, now delivers the dual message of body image and magic. In “Trapper Keeper,” the speaker faces the mirror-image poem, stating,
. . . She will be
an 8th grader, and must wear pretty clothes,
speak in a way that reveals nothing
but giddy concern for skating parties. (pp. 48)
The axe, critical to the mythic woodsman in “Cloak,” reemerges in “Axe,” “Meanwhile,” and “Awake,” where it shifts, dreamlike, between a liberating and threatening object. Everywhere the speaker turns lie magic and menace, good and evil. Ultimately, as in every memorable fairy tale, the triumph of the deserving heroine emerges over her taunting demons.
Tongue is a firmly feminine book, though the issues Flynn raises are universal: sibling rivalry, family illness, self-esteem, injury and recovery, reconciliation, maturity. One of the big gaps in the collection, until the final section, is the speaker’s ability to relate to males. Unless connecting on a fantasy level, as with a college boy she encounters in “Tiger Lily,” males are conspicuously absent. The few who float in and out are largely irrelevant: the father, referred to as “The square” in “The Professor,” is primarily a victim of the sisters’ thievery; the uncle, who deals mainly with the grandmother when she requires hospitalization; Bobby Justice, the local bad boy. Otherwise, until “Hollow,” males are mostly illusory, figments, interruptions. As with No Eden, a poetry book authored by Flynn’s contemporary, Sally Rosen Kindred, males simply do not figure in the equation of the narrative. This does not indicate a weakness in the collection but a sharp focus. And in Flynn’s case, the emergence, at the end, of the father and the sister’s boyfriend/husband introduces a strong sense of compassion, patience, and love into the otherwise stark landscape of the females’ internal relationships.
The final section, “Hollow,” follows the speaker away from her grandmother’s house and into functional adulthood. In “Requiem,” the mother disappears, leaving the family for good. The abandonment is similar to the grandmother’s deterioration in “Faith,” in which
. . . she crept off
to Maine with her drink and smokes and recollections
of the white coat, the exotic lands that fill her dreams
from which she rises now in agony in all her joints,
her mind . . . (pp. 56)
New characters people the speaker’s world. Not all are healthy, but she is able to fend them off, as illustrated in “Hunger for Something Else,” in which she thwarts the ill intentions of a would-be suitor:
. . . we crouched on the thin branches
until night slunk in, and a hunger
for something easier turned the pig away. (pp. 71)
Additionally, the sisters are able to establish relationships and create families, something that seemed quite improbable earlier in the collection. The sister receives the healthy attention of a tender man in “Still,” and the speaker marries in “My Anxious Whisper is a Form of Fierce Sweetness.”
A lesser poet might end there, but Flynn confidently takes the reader further to the last, necessary step. She brings the relationship between sisters full circle in “Adoration.” Her sympathetic treatment of the father is simply breathtaking. In the space of fourteen lines, the poem “Wide Open” rivals Cecilia Woloch’s masterpiece, “How it Works,” as one of the finest, most beautiful renderings of a father figure in contemporary American poetry.
The disasters keep coming, as displayed in “Pediatric Surgery.” The insecurities persist to taunt the successful woman the speaker has become, in “Pulling It Off.” But there is no returning to the days of “Enemy” and “Deep.” The speaker has survived the perils of childhood that threatened to swallow her and her family whole. All is not perfect, as shown in the closing poem “Queen Anne’s Lace”:
. . . I found a plain house with beige rooms
and ate off a cutting board with a plastic fork. (pp. 89)
But the speaker has found an acceptable state in which to live, one that is hers, perhaps haunted by the past but not governed by it. She has earned this life, hers. “You know how it is,” she confesses at the close. “You must live.” (pp. 89)
Paul David Adkins received his Masters of Fine Arts in Writing (Poetry) from Washington University. He lives in New York.