Michelle Detorie, After-Cave
Publisher: Ahsahta Press
2014, 81 pages, paperback, $18
When I was fifteen, I had braces, no boobs, and parents who still drove me to school. So I felt somewhat prepared when I read the description of the speaker in Michelle Detorie’s After-Cave: “I am 15. Female. Human (I think).”
Except I was not at all prepared: this speaker is not the typical teenage girl. In her first full-length collection of poems, Michelle Detorie explores the liminal space of girl adolescence made visceral by turning loose a feral 15-year-old girl within a ravaged dystopian post-American wasteland. The collection is complex, engaging, and altogether magical. Detorie gives that awkward st/age of adolescence a powerful voice in three different sections: “Fur Birds,” “Feralscape,” and “After-Cave.” The speaker, like any 15-year-old, tries to figure out the world—how it works, her place in it, and the purpose and meaning of it all. From “Fur Birds”:
the various streams of information seeking the live
bits—hoping something sticks. Words and songs
and words and pictures moving and moving. The
things you’ll do because you love someone, because
you’re alive. If you’re singing there is the hoping
that someone is listening to the words. The words
shake down yellow from the trees, gather-scatter
over concrete. There’s a fantasy of gathering them
up in my arms, as if it were possible to hold them.
While some define poetry’s purpose as attempting to find meaning in the world, others argue that poetry’s task is to find words for something that has never been said before. Detorie accomplishes both through her precise and imaginative word choice, paired with a fresh-eyed narrator. She describes fog: “up here / the clouds have / legs.” She delights in the wordplay of “scissor” and “sister,” “paws” and “pause.” The earth is alive with “red jelly hearts” that “beat through the clover.”
It’s likely the speaker is experiencing the world for the first time and wandering through the post-apocalyptic aftermath. In the second section, “Feralscape,” she defines the world as “a haunted place—of mud—of / ‘old filthy ruins’—nostalgia like a ghost / lounging about.” When confronted with a new environment, a true impulse is to rely on one’s senses. The speaker uses her poetic skill of deep noticing to decode her haunted surroundings. She documents:
smell of honey + meat
taste of burnt hair/fur
touch of hot, sinking asphalt—tar
sound of locusts, their chiseled drone of scissor-saws
view of a milk white morning
back to a house
These familiar yet terrifying details demonstrate the speaker sifting through the remains of what the earth once was. The design of “Feralscape” mirrors this decay with its wilder and more playful format, including a combination of bird-like formations, upside down letters, intersecting lines, and even an outline of South Carolina. It’s as though the girl is trying to find order in the chaos and map her surroundings. Detorie uses white space and unique formatting as an element of surprise. It keeps the reader engaged and excited about what comes next.
Detorie’s choice of speaker provides interesting commentary on what it means to be an adolescent girl. Young women tend to be associated with purity and innocence, especially when it comes to nature (more lamb, less lion). Detorie completely subverts this stereotype with her feral female narrator. In section three, “After-Cave,” the speaker compares herself to a wolf:
I thought of taking off my clothes and sleeping with
the wolf. I wondered, would it be warmer? I struggled to see
how the wolf and I could be different.
This sentiment also applies to the liminal space of female adolescence. The speaker is not a child and she’s not an adult—she is both. She is human but also longs to be wolf. So Detorie questions—can she be both? Her response comes several pages later; the narrator says, “I grow into a dog,” and a few pages further, “I give birth / to a dog.” Detorie is doing more than putting together a book of beautiful language. She upends the stereotypes of prim and proper girlhood by giving her young, female narrator an entire book of poems to explore her voice and animalistic desires.
In an interview from American Microreviews & Interviews with Kallie Falandays, Detorie states that the girl “learns that being alive is both beautiful and painful.” The speaker is wild and curious and never awkward. She is articulate and profound. She muses: “every time / someone is kind / to me I feel / like breaking.” After-Cave’s feral female speaker is what I wish I could have been at 15.