In Glitter Or In Ash: A Review of Heather June Gibbons’ Her Mouth As Souvenir

Heather June Gibbons’ debut collection is the literary equivalent of a carnival ride: it jolts, thrills, dizzies: you’ll step off windblown, with a little midway grit in your eye. The voice here feels relentlessly hectic, overwhelmed, a caffeinated oracle taking in and reporting on the signs and wonders of contemporary existence. Perception becomes compulsion: in “Smell the Moxie,” for instance, the speaker confesses that “left/to my own devices. I play until they break/I keep turning this roll of invisible tape/hoping to catch an edge.” Nothing seen or said is static, since these poems often revise or second-guess their own perceptions. From “Sore Song:”

In a quick smear before full focus, the eye
misreads what it wants to see, whole cites

hopefully elided, words reversed, double-
negatives parsed and repeated ‘til they thrum

taut as a piano wire. So too the ear hears what it needs
or what it fears, and every letter turns love-letter,

whether scrawled in sidewalk chalk or blinking
pixels on a reader-board gone beserk...

There are six poems in the middle section with the title “Sore Song,” all addressed to the “personless and difficult” god Eros, who always lingers just out of reach: in dreams and “secret airports,” or on the covers of magazines, eternally elusive: “Once/I caught a glimpse of the hem of your robe.” True to the book’s vision, however, what takes center stage is not the god of love but undaunted desire itself: “I need your thumbprint on me,” insists the speaker, “in glitter or in ash.”

It’s a bold move to give so many poems the same title, but effective: Gibbons has a flair for naming her work. Her Mouth as Souvenir ―to my mind a commanding title―comes (a little inexactly) from a line in the poem “Nature”

...Imagine her cerebellum as a flea circus
and Ruby-throated hummingbirds halt their migration,

imagine sixteen different possible futures for wildfires,
her mouth as a literal souvenir, and she mutates
the gross mammalian heart, comes unhinged, mascara
ruining her cheeks as she screams don’t you walk
away from me, you bastard, and flings her red shoe,
narrowly missing the back of some guy’s head

This reduction of Nature, the all-powerful “dark accelerator,” whose “callousness we wish for” into the cinematic trope of spurned, mascara-smeared woman is a gesture central to the book’s vision: nothing is stable or pure; everything is hybrid or tainted, or often, as the book’s title implies, in pieces. Narratives are fragmented, observations warped, memories unreliable, bodies and body parts presented as separate offerings or texts. From “Self-Portrait as Tongue”:

When the acupuncturist examines
the film on my tongue, I’m afraid
she’ll see I’m prone to night sweats
and sobbing at the dolphin show
generates heat which shows up
as deep red on the tip of the tongue

Tongue, eyes, mouth, knee, scar: disembodied parts, further dislocation. But the sense of displacement is, curiously, what makes the book a coherent whole, because there is more here than mere ironic gesture or the intention to destabilize. Gibbon’s layered perceptions create a very particular and intriguing vision: restless, anxious but nevertheless engaged, wide-eyed, and honest. The effect is mosaic; a whole made of fragments; a general shape from which countless images, like bright tesserae, glitter: a streak of pollen, a Luna moth, “the plastic egg we never found.”

And there are motifs throughout. One of the book’s persistent anxieties concerns debasement of the natural world: dolphins “made to do/tricks for food” (“Self-Portrait As Tongue”), the Sandhill crane “in the shadow of the Superstore,” (“Do Not Leave This Box”); environments corrupted or awry, “a field of forget-me-not sprayed/with real pesticides”(“Smell the Moxie”), wildfires aplenty, and finally a menacing plague of algae in the wonderful and oddly prescient “The Green Rose Up:”

Cities welled up and were overwhelmed.
The green kept rising until we waded in algae
and at night a phosphorescent bloom
lit the pathways our limbs had traveled
and pocked the surface of the water with sparks

This dire threat to humanity becomes weirdly bucolic, a still life that compares the pastoral (“Vines covered/the brick debris, a pheasant nested/in the high grass of the razed block”) favorably against the bare and institutional (“We lined up at the agency and spoke/only of our strengths and not of the law”). Here we see Gibbons’ keen gift for diction―her ability to guide the reader seamlessly through changes in attitude and conceptual leaps, on display also in the marvelous “Poppy:”

Poppy that my heart was, sullen
mouth agape and buzzing in
the upper cavity of resonance

Poppy that my heart was, tissue-thin
petals a-droop, such doggerel
Demeter’s narcosis for whosit

lost one doesn’t sleep here
she can’t, somnia is a fall
slow enough to float, Poppy

had a heart made of paper and
tulle loops her mother sewed
to keep her wound up close

remember that my heart was
so inscribed on gravestone whilst
you, Canker Flower, did stray

I’m frankly in awe of this one: so taut, full of laddered sound and mixed registers, the formal “a-droop,” for instance, calling sonically to the slangy “whosit,” the double meaning of “agape” (also Greek for “selfless love”), and perfectly measured tension for a poem about the mother/daughter bond. Appearances by goddess-figures are not infrequent in this collection; in the similarly tight and sound-heavy “Muse the Drudge,” for instance:

I, hackneyed beauty queen
with kitchen knife, whir, tilt off

spin fast, a heavy eddy I am no
girl-wisp, nor clipped wing-tip

nor treachery of baubles, nor branded
by word, nor shut up in a cave

no-body, no birdie, I leak, call me
Sheela-na-gig, Astate, Dora, cheap

whiskey in cut-crystal. . .

[N]or shut up in a cave: a rebellious Persephone, Antigone declining suicide, muse as dominatrix, “harlot,” spoiled child: “I lick you, there/now you’re licked.”

The third and final section of the book features work that is perhaps a little less restive, maybe because so many poems are elegiac. In “Waymark” the now familiar voice yearns to be still for a moment, despite chaos and shifting ground: “Quiet now. Bells in the square ring at strange intervals/and no shadows lengthen. In another country, this medicine/is called Moment and it is very expensive.” And in the beautifully candid “Elegy,” we grieve, along with the speaker, not just an old man’s death but the awful indignities of dying: “gone the edema and the groan/and the diapered man cut down like a stand of Shagbark hickory.” Ultimately Gibbons’ most uncanny gift is for coaxing the reader along on her fevered voyage—as Jericho Brown says in the introduction, “We are stuck journeying―toiling, you might say, the religious sense―until we can fix our eyes on someone who will journey with us.” Gibbons’ is a stirring journey, indeed, with plenty of lyrical detours: a wild ride.



Amy Beeder’s third book, And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press. She lives in Albuquerque.