Today's book of poetry:
Congress of Strange People. Stephanie Lenox. Airlie Press. Monmouth, Oregon. USA. 2012.
Books like Stephanie Lenox's Congress of Strange People are a precious find. Lenox mines the Guinness Book of World Records like a pilgrim with their first Bible. The stories she relates confirm the strangeness in us all, familiarizes us with what is human in everyone.
This book vibrates in your hands when you are reading it. Screams bloody murder when you put it down.
Sunday afternoons Grandfather and I studied
The Guinness Book, dog-earing our favorites:
Mike, the headless chicken that lived eighteen months
before dying in an Arizona hotel room;
the man whose arm was severed and reconnected
three separate times—Lazarus, Jesus, and the lame girl combined.
Your grandmother is in there, he nudged me. Keep looking.
I scanned the Medical Marvels, Extreme bodies
for the woman he said could balance a piano on the tip
of her tongue. I stared at each smudged photo
until every woman began to look like family,
same eyes squinting against amazing burden.
Other times we huddled over the family tree,
its names branching out on butcher paper, me captivated
by the word genealogy as if it contained the power to grant
my three greatest wishes, while he plotted everything,
traced us back to Sing-Go-Wah, chief of a tribe
of pranksters. He pinched my skin until the blood rose.
See, you are red. Then he showed me how to cup my hand
over my mouth to make a war cry.
Once before leaving, he said he had a present for me
and dropped something weightless, invisible in my hand.
The world's smallest guitar, he explained,
like the one we read about, size of a human blood cell,
completely functional. Now, play me a song.
My pulse picked up as I tried to think of what I could do.
Leaning over, with the tip of his fingernail he strummed once
the center of my palm, told me to press my ear against it.
There is an old-fashioned and comforting, down to the basics feel to these poems, but make no mistake, Lenox has a sophisticated voice full of marvels. The "strange" are not so strange and we are not what we think either.
It occurs to me that Lenox is clearly lying about her current age and this being her first book. Neither of those things are really possible. These poems have centuries buried in them.
No One Gets Hurt
According to Guinness World Records,
Dean Sheldon earned titles in 2000 for
holding both the largest scorpion and the
most scorpions in his mouth at one time.
I can't say what I was thinking
the first time I unhinged my jaw
to see what I'd kept so quietly there.
We have an unspoken agreement.
Even the largest arachnid curls
close to my patient breath.
I open my mouth so wide
that my fear escapes, wide enough
it becomes a desert, and my teeth
so many wind-shaped stones.
I can't tell you what it's like
to feel those lives shifting inside me.
It's not unlike the man who ate steel
hotter than the surface of Venus
and let it cool in his mouth.
To those who say I do it for a name,
I say, So? Who isn't prey to that hunger?
And to the man who spat a cricket—
dead—thirty feet, one question:
Was it alive when it first went it?
The way I hold these creatures,
venomous tails, four pairs of legs
folded lightly as if in prayer,
no one gets hurt. Can you say that?
What better way to know strength
than to hold that carapace of space
on the soft bed of the tongue.
Twenty is not nearly enough to show
the dark distances great inside me.
Inside my mouth, I can hold anything.
Congress of Strange People made me laugh out loud, made me open my dictionary, made me reconsider, made me change my mind and made me a new follower of Stephanie Lenox.
I find her, hopeful as a student
in a yearbook photo, showing off
her odd trick. Legs pinned
behind ears, in white lace,
almost lovely, almost graceful
below a neon title and date—
as if it could be different
each month, wilder contortions,
a new secret message spelled out
in limbs and lips. How tedious
it must be to sit like that
while the camera searches
day after day for a fresh angle,
eyes begging to see more.
How easily the legs fold back.
She is a wishbone, a horseshoe,
a charm of glossy flesh. Her eyes
tell me she does not care who I am.
She is not a textbook or footnote.
Spread-eagle across the page
she refuses to be overlooked.
I need to understand this desire—
to stretch it out until it becomes
ordinary. What new use
can I make of this? Show me, I ask
her teetering form, what more
can be done? I will not turn away.
Show me something still frightening
or so beautiful it will shock me again.
Photo Credit: Sabina Samiee/Oregon Arts Commission
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie Lenox lives in Salem, Oregon, with her husband and two daughters. She teaches poetry at Willamette University and edits the literary journal Blood Orange Review. She is the author of The Heart That Lies Outside the Body, an award-winning poetry chapbook published by Slapering Hol Press in 2007. Her work has appeared widely in literary journals, and she has been honored with fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Oregon Arts Commission. Her web site is www.stephanielenox.com
"To write so thoughtfully, humorously, zanily, and beautifully about dogs and cats, remorseful sisters and fumbling fathers, crazy record-holders and sexy snake charmers—every body and thing around us—is to live poetry. Lenox's life is animated into a colorful, deeply felt spectrum of discovery that spans 'a suspension bridge of disbelief' that we willingly believe and dive from, risking that splitting heart of fear and joy. A smart, surprising, and audacious book."
—Henry Hughes, author of Moist Meridian
Stephanie Lenox reads poems from Congress of Strange People, Meadowlake Studios