Sarah A. Chavez
Review of Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience by Laura Madeline Wiseman
New Orleans: Lavender Ink, 2014. 112pgs. $16.00. paper.
Laura Madeline Wiseman's poetry collection, Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience, published by Lavender Ink (2014), takes one of the most gruesome fairytales which teaches women that curiosity means death (literally), and turns it completely on its head. And what's best about how she does that, is instead of only making the female character somehow "strong" or feisty or brave—like so many contemporary feminist re-envisionings of fairytales—she highlights the multiplicity and polyphony of the female characters in the original tale and presents female characters here that are fully realized and complex: sometimes troubled, sometimes angry, and possibly most importantly sometimes mindfully walking into situations where they know they might be hurt.
In the original fairytale, Bluebeard is a hideous rich man who goes through wives like Kleenex, but the short version of the tale focuses on the youngest daughter of a neighbor who, like the wives before her, is given the keys to all the rooms in the house but told not to look into the one secret room. Once he is gone, the young woman succumbs to her curiosity, despite the pleas of her visiting sister, and opens the room. She finds the dead bodies of all the previous wives and in her horror drops the key into clotted blood on the floor of the room. And in appropriate fictional dramatic-fashion, Bluebeard returns home early, discovers that she has broken her promise, and tries to kill her. She and her sister then hide in a tower until their brothers arrive to save them from the murderous Bluebeard. The end is fairly happy in that the young wife inherits all Bluebeards money, marries off her sister, and then she herself remarries.
In this way, the story is more about squelching female curiosity and reinforcing the joys of domestic married bliss. What Wiseman does that is so refreshing is that rather than focusing on the last wife and the end of the abuse, she uses the Bluebeard fairy tale as an entry point to talking about cycles of abuse that are propagated year in and year out in western culture. The story is no longer about this one curious wife, but about all women who enter into abusive relationships. Bluebeard's wives are not reduced to victims of an evil man, but complicated people seduced by the many trappings of the way Western culture promotes marriage, whether that is the tidy house in the suburbs or the wild excitement of a "bad boy" who she thinks she can change.
With the poems divided into four sections, one for each of the three sisters and one for the previous dead wives, the women are given voice to discuss their attraction to Bluebeard. For the first sister, he is sweet and provides her with a comfortable suburban home. In the poem, "Lawn Husband" (21), the first sister sort of amusingly recounts this modern version of Bluebeard as a picturesque model of suburban husbandry,
"You might pay the girl across the street
or let it grow a little wild,
but most weeks you mowed unfailingly" (lines 1-3).
This ritual is followed by descriptions of how much this put him, and them as a couple, within the fabric of the neighborhood, as he acts "like the others" (line 4) with a ritualized "maintenance of sidewalks / and driveways" (lines 14-15). What could become a poem about monotony, morphs into romance novel territory as the poem ends with the first wife fantasizing about him and describing his "muscles flexed and gleam[ing]" (lines 20) from the masculine work of suburban upkeep. In the last stanza the sexiness and appeal of this American stereotype furthers as his we are asked to see his sweaty presences as "a riot, a tease" (30).
Despite the modern setting and the romantic trappings of what normative society still holds up as an ideal of success, the first sister of course finds the room, and is killed. The tone between the first sister's section and the following sister's sections are startling. Whereas Bluebeard is sweet and their love seems young, almost idyllic, the second section reveals him as a "punk," as someone wild and dangerous. He is sad now, and disillusioned, "his voice a growl / amplified telling us all to fuck off" (34, lines 13-14). Now Bluebeard is a different stereotype of desirable men sold to straight women: the tortured artist, someone in pain, and the pain is supposed to be sexy. The poems in this section highlight his dangerousness and how that adds tension to their passion. Even though the second sister recognizes his danger, in the poem "Trick-or-Treat" (37), we are told that this affair is "Not chance or fate—just plot waiting" (line 1). This thread in the collection is particularly engaging. It would be easy to, like in many variations of the fairytale, present the women as unsuspecting victims who are beguiled, seduced, or taken by a more powerful man, but over and over again in the remainder of the poems, Wiseman reasserts the ways in which the female characters know how these marriages will end, and yet they do it anyway; they relive the story:
Maybe we were all meant to be repainted
in retellings, a name recognizable
by the straightness of the spine
and the titles—The Robber Bridegroom, Blue
Beard, Fowlers Foul—the key,
the blood, the locked room, late wives.
Or maybe some of us are the variation, the search
for the variation that mirrors our own— (12-19)
Over and over, the second sister wonders about the inevitability of this storyline, ponders about how far to push past the plot line, but ultimately she is a variation of the same bloody outcome.
While there are many things to admire about this collection of poems, my favorite section is "Third Sister, Dark Sister." This section is filled out with different, connected series of poems that highlight how the third sister chooses to act (and not act) in light of the murder of her sisters and the awareness of violence done to other women, as in the poems, "Our Sister Cared." It is in this section that Bluebeard is most plainly shown as a standard abusive spouse. There is no more romanticizing of his dangerousness or the freshness of new love. This section is more about the ways in which the third sister must live with the knowledge of his violence and the pressure Western society places on women to return to harmful situations or to enter them in the first place. What resonates most strongly for me here is not the individual women's relationship to Bluebeard or their own struggles and explorations of sexuality, but rather their's and all women's relationships to one another and the question as to whether women have a responsibility to look out for each other. This book, for me, is about the ways women fail ourselves and each other. Yes, Bluebeard is a predator, a wife-beater, a killer, but throughout the collection, the onus falls to the female characters as they have watched their sisters loved and murdered—pulled in by sensuality, even knowing the violence Bluebeard/men are capable of. The mother in "VIII" (77) asking the third sister to forgive him is representative of the older generations holding onto outmoded ideas of servitude. The section of "Late Wives" presents not one woman's voice, as the individual sisters' sections do, but a polyphony of voices that highlight the word "sisters" as not merely referring to the literal sisters in the myth, but to all women as sisters. These lovely poems are a call to action for women to change their own stories, and not live out the "plot" given to them.
Once again, Wiseman has created beautifully crafted poems that ask readers to reframe issues of gender, models of love, and violence (for more about the latter, see her anthology Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Here, as in her chapbook Spindrift (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), female characters are given voice to speak the unconventional offer a window into trepidations we should all have. Throughout the latter half of Some Fatal Effects, the apparitions of the dead sisters act like oral history. Though as a culture oral storytelling is not honored as it once was, women still receive warnings over and over again through media by hearing what has happened to other women throughout the country and world. Certainly, as stated in well-deserved blurbs, these poems are often sensual, erotic, smart, but they are also voyeuristic, watching the reader watch them; asking readers to consider, in which sister do we see ourselves.
You can purchase Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience here.
Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking published by Dancing Girl Press (2014). She holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, So to Speak: Feminist Journal of Language and Art, among others. Her manuscript, This, Like So Much, was an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Contest. A selection from her chapbook manuscript All Day, Talking won the Susan Atefat Peckham Fellowship in 2013. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.