The day woke with a (*): Sheila McMullin’s daughterrarium

Sheila McMullin’s collection daughterrarium immediately piques the reader’s interest with a perfectly placed asterisk. The strange natural imagery and experimental form in “Tapering” introduce both mystery and play, two ideas that stream throughout the collection.

My sister also said *
we think because of our mother; (I)
feared * and (I) held

(I) Interrupted *:

Many people have that thought, sure
Around dangerous objects, yes

(I) looked out the window, no

like killing myself had never come
into my own before, no
My tongue dried with half the pill

Asterisks and parentheticals make the reader pause and meditate on the words. Within the parentheses we find pronouns, as if the actor in the poem were secondary to the action. This removal of the individual adds a spiritual dimension to the work, while the asterisks place emphasis on verbs that we might otherwise read past. The reader wants to know more about this particular fear, this particular interruption, if only because they inhabit a fresh form. McMullin continues playing with punctuation throughout the collection, but she varies its use:

“Ghost will have” “to bless me”
“bless me” “re-“ “verse” “me” “I”
“dare you to” “uncome in me”

In her notes, McMullin explains that she borrowed this form from Alice Notley’s Decent of Alette. McMullin cites Notley as an important influence in an interview for #FemaleGaze, along with Sarah Vap, Hélène Cixous, and Sara Woods, among others (Montellanos). Like Notley’s experimentation with form, McMullin’s use of punctuation serves to deepen our experience of language on the page.

The varied font sizes in “Antumbra” do not work as well for this reader, having the unfortunate effect of a mild psychoactive drug. I spent several confused moments comparing the size of the letters in one word to that of the word that came before it, eventually concluding that they were the same (I think). This technique was distracting, but I am sure that some readers will enjoy the disorienting effect. In the same poem, the poet uses empty parentheticals and gives the reader different options for filling them, like an artistically rendered Mad Lib. The poet engages the reader in the poetic process, helping them read and see differently.

Amidst the experimental, we also encounter resounding moments of reprieve. The collection is peppered by short, italicized, untitled poems that speak more directly to the reader than the more formal poems do; it feels as though they come from the poet’s subconscious. Within these poems, we are introduced to images that later reenter the collection to remind us of the import of signs and symbols: firelight ranunculus, orange poppies, chicken skin, a King of May, God’s hand over our belly over the earth.

The personal content of the collection is no less absorbing. McMullin give glimpses into the speaker’s trauma without flinching or becoming sentimental. The poet covers issues of sexual abuse, cancer, isolation from family, dissociation from the body, and more; she writes, “Being unprepared meant handing over her body, / but seeing as it’s still attached to me / I can’t let go.” But the poet’s relationship with trauma is that of fierce and persistent acceptance rather than bitter resignation. The speaker’s strength is palpable by the end of the collection when McMullin writes, “You don’t have to support me / You have to get out of the way.”

In the #FemaleGaze interview, McMullin identifies herself as an intersectional feminist, an identity that comes through in her poems. The collection contains a series of “Bad Woman” poems that deal with the speaker’s shame about her womanhood. But the speaker continually pulls back from her feelings into the awareness that many of them are illusions that have been created by others:

My ability to make reasonable decisions
to be loved by God and earth
have been questioned 

            I have been made
to think I am broken and disgusting

Though painful, the poet’s reflections on shame and misogyny also give her freedom. daughterrarium contains another series of poems dedicated to different women, a celebration that seems to counteract the more difficult issues addressed in the “Bad Woman” series. “Clara’s Book” continues the use of pronouns in parentheses to powerful effect, while “Lilith’s Book” explores a woman’s persistence despite degrading sexualization.

At the end of the collection, McMullin leaves us with images of growth and expansion: blooming light, blooming ocean, blooming flower. The reader comes away feeling connected to speaker of the poems, having witnessed their process of unwinding pain and fear and discovering love:

Under my foot in the
ocean, like glass, I step on and hold there some sort of fish. I was
surprised he was larger than my foot and although I felt fear I let the
wave crash.

daughterrarium, by Sheila McMullin. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, April 2017. 112 pages. $16.00, paper.

Xan Schwartz is a second-year MFA student at Cleveland State University. She spends her time listening to Joanna Newsom and tutoring fellow students at the Cleveland State Writing Center. Her poetry has been published in The Periphery magazine.

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