I Failed to Swoon, a poetry collection by Nadia de Vries, reviewed by Fani Avramopoulou

Nadia de Vries’ I Failed to Swoon is a slim collection of poems that are by turns playful, brutal, and aloof. The poems in this collection are short—some of them no longer than Tweets. Much of the language invokes tropes of internet speech: droll one-liners, self-assured aphorisms, jaded indifference, and cliché. de Vries unsettles the glassy surface of this type of language, producing an instability within each poem that asks difficult questions about pain, autonomy, and being seen.

I Failed to Swoon investigates the broader implications of being in a body that is witnessed by others, and, conversely, witnessing the embodied experiences of other people. Pain and illness appear frequently throughout these poems, but de Vries does not break from her cool, distant language. The book opens with an epigraph: “If you can’t handle my sickness, / don’t trigger my gag reflex.” The epigraph appropriates a well-known quotation often falsely attributed to Marilyn Monroe, and in doing so establishes the most salient theme in the book: the relationship between embodied experience and spectacle, and the negotiation of power and ownership within that dynamic.

de Vries subtly brings up the question of ownership in her use of linguistic tropes, but ownership in a physical sense is also a central theme of many of the poems, and de Vries considers it from many angles. “I do not own any surfaces / Nothing I bleed on is mine / I get displayed all the time,” de Vries writes in “I Am My Own Lapidary.” Throughout the book, the home environment is described as something the speaker has no ownership over. There are a few instances in which the speaker exchanges photographs with another person, presumably through social media. First, they share pictures of their house, of all the things they do not own. In a later poem, they share a picture of their breasts, harkening back to the idea of display. Who owns a body on display? If you live inside something—a body, a house—does that make it yours? Maybe not. The only thing that the speaker ever claims as “theirs” is their darkness and pain—things that cannot be displayed without breaking from their embodiment and becoming pure spectacle.

There are many motifs woven throughout I Failed to Swoon, each contributing a distinct voice to the book’s conversation about power and ownership. One of the most vivid and unsettling images in the book appears when de Vries describes Natalie Portman portraying Jackie Kennedy in the 2016 film Jackie. In particular, de Vries repeatedly returns to the image of Portman in the iconic blood-splattered dress that Jackie refused to change out of after President Kennedy was assassinated next to her. In “All These Psychoses Are Driving Me Crazy,” de Vries opens, once again, with a linguistic trope—this time a pick-up line: “What are you / the Kennedy assassination / because I don’t care if you’re staged or real.” When the poem asks about the staging of the assassination, it probes at larger questions about spectacle and violence. de Vries’ choice to center this poem not on Jackie Kennedy in the dress, but on Natalie Portman’s reenactment of that moment, is a telling one. It brings the reappropriation of the spectacle of violence to the surface of the poem, and returns us to the question of ownership. The rightful owner of that scene must be Jackie Kennedy, but Natalie Portman is wearing a replica of her dress as a costume, and Jackie is nowhere to be found. The poem closes, “Oh, the things I’d do / for a blood-stained dress.” The book is filled with longings like this one, and sometimes they complicate each other. There is a longing to be seen, to be a spectacle, but also a longing for autonomy, and for the ability to control one’s own image and environment.

Despite the deadpan humor and brutal honesty in many of the poems, it wasn’t until the end of the book that I realized what it was asking of me. After spending a lot of time thinking about bodies and houses and the bloody dress, I returned to “Interview with a Vampire.” “Does the sight of blood repel you?” the poem asks. The rest of the poem offers four possible answers to this question. As I was reading, I wondered who the vampire was, as it was its only appearance in the book. Now I can’t help but think that the vampire is me. Me looking up pictures of both women in the dress. Me watching video footage of Jackie Kennedy on the day of the assassination. Do we all become vampires when the pain of other people becomes a spectacle? There is a case for that in this book.

I Failed to Swoon is immediately satisfying in the way that scrolling on social media can be. There is comfort in the familiarity of the language, and that comfort allows the deeper questions in the book to float to the surface slowly. It’s a book to read like you might read your Twitter feed: all at once, or a little at a time. Either way, it’ll keep creeping back into your thoughts later on, perhaps while you’re cleaning the house that isn’t yours, or walking the dog that owns you, or getting dressed in the morning, preparing to be seen.

I Failed to Swoon, by Nadia de Vries. Manchester, England, UK: Dostoyevsky Wannabe, June 2021. 60 pages. $7.06, paper.

Fani Avramopoulou is a writer and educator in Baltimore. See what she’s reading on Instagram at @floatingflowerfreeway.

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