I have enjoyed Wetlaufer's work for the last few years. I had the honor of attending graduate school with her at Florida State University. Since our school days, we have stayed in touch through our blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, which is where I heard about her first chapbook.
Chapbooks are a great place to tell a focused story through poetry. In this case, the poems are all about, or in the voice of, Mary Sweeney. Sweeney is a real-life woman from the nineteenth century who was institutionalized various times, but escaped. Wetlaufer takes this little known, real-life person and gives her a voice, actions, and a history.
What I admire about this book, and much of Wetlaufer's work, is her ability to take on different voices and time periods. We often admire what we have a difficulty doing ourselves and this is very much the case for me. I don't often take on different voices or time periods in my own work. The narrator is typically a version of myself and I mostly focus on the here and now or the very recent past. Wetlaufer graciously moves into these characters and this period. It is so smoothly done that she makes it look easy, when I know it is anything but.
While these poems deal with the past, there is a clear connection to the present and how one identifies as a woman in this country whether it be in the nineteenth century or the twenty-first century. These poems touch on something real.
One of my favorite poems in the chapbook is entitled "The Window-Smasher Speaks." In it Wetlaufer writes, "I am the one drawn to shards, / the pieces of things left behind / when something larger breaks." This stanza feels like a great description of this whole book and of perhaps the poet's approach to these poems and this story. Wetlaufer takes shards of a life and fits them together to make a portrait that still has cracks in it, but that begins to create an image of a woman we want to know. As the poems progress, we get little snippets of more information and insight.
Wetlaufer also plays with various forms throughout the chapbook. Another standout poem is entitled "Selections from the Asylum Nurses' Report." This is a collection of fragments that paint a picture of what an asylum at this time period would have been like. This raises questions of medical treatment of women throughout history and of the treatment or misunderstanding of "insanity." In "The Mind's Boil," the words float around the page and seem to embody the very mood of the poem, which serves as a collection of sounds, voices, thoughts, and questions.
We are never given all the answers. There are still shards of glass missing and that's how it should be. Wetlaufer gives us a glimpse into a world based both in reality and in the imagination of a very talented poet.
I encourage you to buy a copy for yourself. It is only $5.00 and can be purchased here: http://greybookpress.com/index.php/site/titles/