The title page layout of Angela Veronica Wong’s Elsa: An Unauthorized Autobiography breaks its subtitle down the right-hand margin: “an un- / authorized auto- / biography,” an apt design move to introduce a project that fragments the self across time and space. The speaker’s I is and is not a manifestation of Elsa herself, aligned but separate; Elsa is, indeed, rendered an un- (a non-entity, a less-than) by the systemic powers-that-be; and the repetition of poetic form becomes the driving force that writes (author-izes) an embodied text into being.
Formally, Elsa is a book-length sequence of sonnets. Haunted by glimpses of pentameter and rhyme but ultimately unfettered by those constraints, those who look to traditional prosody as a litmus test of entry into a particular formal tradition might deem these shadow sonnets or quatorzains, not sonnets proper, but these questions of propriety and entry into an exclusive echelon of tradition read as intentional features of Wong’s system, not bugs. What is a sonnet, the collection asks? What is an Elsa, for that matter? Here, both seem to exist as things made, things done to, creatures of context and circumstance, experiments tried again and again.
The book’s first poem sets up Elsa’s inherent contradictions; on the one hand, “Elsa is not a girl she is a girl / fashioned from sticks and whale blubber, paper / daughter that with one poof falls away.” She is a fragile, ephemeral thing. Yet in the next sentence, Elsa is not without knowledge or power:
she passes through society like a ginger
cat stalking the moonlight. No one can see
who she isn’t. No one can read her at all.
Here, she is aloof, opaque, in but not of her surroundings. Then, the sonnet turns and she becomes the subject of some brutal science, as the speaker invites “us” to “Remove all her plums . . . Cut out her lungs . . . Cut out her heart . . . and let’s see what she does without it.”
Over the course of the collection, the reader gains a sense of Elsa’s life story – or rather, one of her life stories. She’s an 18th century British orphan who is found, caged, and eventually ends up as one of many young mistresses of Louis XV in the infamous Parc aux Cerfs at Versailles. It doesn’t become entirely clear why Elsa is caged as a curiosity (one thinks here of Sara Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus”), whether it is her beauty (Elsa is found “just six of age and / already beautiful”) or some other quality that prompts the society of Versailles to include her in its menagerie (“Soon there would be wild animals, tigers / and alligators and Elsa”). Being a “cause célèbre . . . keeps Elsa from the worst chores,” but doesn’t give her autonomy over her body: “whenever he can / the Sun King’s great-grandson likes to get rough.” There is a pregnancy, threats of falling from favor within Versailles life, threats of revolution from the larger society (“Elsa thinks she knows how she will die. / A French peasant chorus taunts”), exile. This life alone would provide plenty of fodder for the book’s personal and societal investigations of sex, gender, and power, but this Elsa gives way throughout the collection to poems of another Elsa: this one (or more?) in contemporary New York, who “stole a box of crayons from / Duane Reade and got three years in prison,” whose “boyfriend was away he / went to Wisconsin he doesn’t exist.”
And all of those Elsas share some connection with yet another voice, that of a knowing yet not all-knowing speaker, who can say, “Elsa, let’s call up all our ex-boyfriends / and ask them what went wrong.” All this blurring of identity – to what end? Toward the end of the book, the speaker addresses the fact of this plurality: “Elsa, Elsas are grotesques they are / large a sin of flesh.” This skewing of sentence structure and imposition of inherent amorality upon Elsa’s very personhood reinforces the sense that, though Elsa (or any of us) may believe ourselves to be individuals, our lives and society’s sense of our worth and potential is still shaped by outside forces. What all of these Elsas and perspectives seem to have in common is the seemingly no-win situation of the sexual and sexualized woman in society – whether that society is Versailles or contemporary America.
Again and again, the poems reflect and reflect on the debasement of the female body, bookended by the imagery of the hole, rendering Elsa nothing but an absence, a receptacle; toward the beginning of the collection, “Elsa’s body is a hole for royal / secrets,” and toward the end, “Elsa is a hole / inside you put your secrets.” This bleak vision of sex, gender, and society, goes hand in hand, however, with the humor that infuses the collection.
The speaker dispenses wry life advice throughout: “Elsa, if you spend every morning / looking at the engagement rings of Upper / East Side women it will take you to a / very dark place”; “Don’t meddle in / politics, Elsa, but if you do, / practice becoming the Queen of France.” Her observations on men and relationships are bitingly funny: “Men are not like plants. It’s not / like if you love them they will become / a fruit”), and that wit and camaraderie among women (even imagined across the centuries) is the win hidden in the no-win.
For a reader drawn to shape-shifting ambiguity, poems where 17th century Elsa and contemporary Elsa blur together feel especially satisfying, reinforcing the sense of shared experience:
XV does to you is nothing compared
to what you want yourself. Laughter is out
of fashion. Your confessor interpreted your
dreams. You will be sent to convent. That
ridiculous hair and all those beauty marks.
And your new maman, she’d leak your sex
tape on the internet if you hadn’t
done it on your own.
That mode sometimes feels at odds with the book’s most expository range, even when the exposition’s content is all too true:
It’s possible to
naturalize hierarchy even while
shackled and oppressed. Elsa, what will
dismantle white patriarchy.
Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.
But ultimately, it is this refusal to be pinned down even when quite literally pinned down (“On her back, Elsa holds her breath, her hands / beneath her, resisting, resisting”) that gives this book its power. The subversive contemporary sonnet is having a moment (see book-length sonnet collections from Terrance Hayes and Anna Maria Hong, among others), and it feels apt that Wong’s collection uses this particular form to engage with both our current context and that which endures (for better or for worse) across the centuries.
Dora Malech is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently, Stet (Princeton University Press, 2018). She is an assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.