Foreboding and Allure: Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls by Erika Meitner

Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls

Makeshift Instructions
for Vigilant Girls

BY Erika Meitner
(Anhinga Press, 2011)

Certain scenarios, including abduction, persist when the topic of adolescent sexuality arises. In contemporary poetry depicting the lives of American girls, such danger is almost de rigueur as authors turn toward the media’s fascination with crime and personal stories that emphasize vulnerable subjects. In her highly thematic third book, Meitner occasionally draws from widely publicized cases, and employs a few familiar approaches, from writing a poem on “Sex Ed” to evoking an era by using the products of teen culture, but also turns crisp narratives into amalgams of foreboding and allure that extend beyond simple surfaces. Work that appears “subversive and angry but flirty and sweet, owning and critiquing sexuality in candid ways”[1] provides heartening perspectives on resilience and on the shifting nature of relationships.

The opening poem, “Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls,” addresses Elizabeth Smart’s younger sibling, who witnessed the 2002 abduction in Salt Lake City: “Be the sleeping sister who sees no one. Stay tucked in. Later, hand over // a list of suspects.” The speaker offers advice that ranges from staying alert while remaining hidden (“When there are conversations, / take notes in your secret diary”) to advocating from a distance (“Speak on behalf // of the soon-to-be-missing, but if they play / in the woods near your home, do not / trail them to an encounter…”). Any adult would be expected to encourage self-preservation in these situations. Though the poem initially follows a well-traveled course, it soon gathers momentum:

…with the man
in the conversion van who gently insists

you hunt for his puppy and means you
no harm through his pleated pockets filled

with stars and balloons, real pieces
of the moon. Resist. Try not to lick anything.

Bring your gum eraser and be invisible
as a grackle to the well-trained watcher

who follows your movements
but never reports them until

you are found veiled in a strip mall basement,
throat unfurling with threats and questions.

— p. 3

Meitner uses fragments (“van,” “puppy”) that are often linked to “stranger danger” lessons for children. Such language warns of temptation, and hints at an unfortunate outcome, but the poet leaves enough room to imagine that the girl may have survived. A poem that appears to be a straightforward commentary on lost innocence instead raises provocative questions. What would thsee threats entail if they originated from the girl who had just been threatened herself? What happens when victimization is articulated rather than presented as a silent, private experience? Here, as in later poems, Meitner ably introduces ideas that guide readers beyond circumscribed narratives on the young.

Even amid wavering between confidence and disheartening realizations (“Last year I learned to stop living / as if we were all under siege // but then we were again”), as in the poem “After the All-Night Vigil” (p. 19), the girls often possess greater strength than they realize. A similar fortitude emerges again in “Electric Girls.” The poem begins by recounting the abduction of two teens by Roy Dean Ratliff (“This is missing girl season. Two more disappear…”), then proceeds with a skillful detour:

In the nineteenth century, girls in whose presence
certain phenomena occurred — the movement of objects
without contact, or a brush from a petticoat:
a compass needle’s tremor, the agitation of a cold wind —
were called Electric Girls, could distinguish
between the poles of a magnet at a touch.

The most famous was a Normandy peasant, Angelique Cottin.
Taken to Paris, she was placed under observation
of doctors and others who testified to her authenticity.
Still a commission appointed by the Academy of Sciences
observed nothing but violent movements of her chair,
probably caused, they decided, by muscular force —
a testament to her strength, these stories

like the skywriter’s letters, forgotten,
abstracting into loops and dots around the sun.

— pp. 32-33

Meitner never spells out the potentially disturbing juxtaposition between the sideshow-treatment of the Electric Girls and reportage of the teens, who were named by the media until it was discovered that they had been raped, and who were subsequently referred to as “two teenage girls” or “the victims.” She lets readers weigh the implications of turning serious moments into public spectacles. Threading the otherworldliness of Cottin — who was presumably subjected to testing, but who is not powerless in this poem — with the narrtative of the two teens in the earlier stanzas allows the latter to take on a different meaning. The teens are not only “victims”; they are effectively situated along a continuum of assertive women. (Interviewed on an episode of 48 Hours Investigates, both later disclosed the ways in which they had fought their attacker.)

In the inventive series on the paranormal, which includes “Instructions for Constructing an Alien Abduction,” the theme of strength in crisis returns through the imperative voice that had previously given advice:

…Tangle yourself

in the aftermath: a sudden and arcane knowledge
of detritus, the fly sleeping quietly under your tongue,

and any message wound in the fortune cookies
of bedsheets that begins: Dear Sirs,

I lie on your fleecy underbelly until winter comes and I can cross the ocean on
foot. Along the way, my kinsmen will care for me, as will any lone kayaker
scooting his craft towards the sun. A woman traveling alone is a cause for
vulnerable celebration. Her hair will declare her for miles.

— pp.40-41

Meitner provides yet another instance of tension between the knowledge that females are disproportionately subjected to violence and the fact that everyday life (“traveling alone”) must continue. In considering the occasion worthy of cautious “celebration,” she emphasizes that pain or injustice can be faced with courage. In the closing line, her speaker signals the will to make her presence known. Much like the girl whose throat unfurled with “threats and questions” and Cottin, whose “muscular force” attests to her appealing resolve, there is no apologetic stance.

The third section of the book widens in scope. Entitled “domestic spasm,” the last group of poems features reflections on dating, engagement, wedding registries, and other topics. Nearly all of these provide counterpoints to earlier poems that are punctuated by tense, if not outright forceful, scenarios. Some readers may question the conventional choice to end with poems that lead toward marriage, but the poet avoids presenting marriage as a formulaic, upbeat resolution or as a quick balm for past trauma. The adults in these poems arrive at love from a clear-eyed vantage: “Love colored with sidewalk chalk / won’t make it through the next rain” (“Engagement,” p. 64). They embrace it with full consideration of its challenges, and in doing so, demonstrate a hard-won emotional maturity that acknowledges setbacks.

Despite poems rooted in precarious circumstances, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls does not dwell on lamentation. There is little undue voyeurism, and with rare exceptions, nearly each instance of harm is accompanied by a determined refusal to let it hinder the speakers’ lives. Female experiences, both everyday and exceptional, comprise a collection that has portrayed a “broken / hymn” (p. 79) riven with light.

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REFERENCES

  1. “On the Gurlesque”, written by Arielle Greenberg in April 2003, is based on an outline for a talk delivered at Small Press Traffic as part of the New Experiments series in November 2002.

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