Secret Written from Inside the Prey’s Mouth: Jeanann Verlee’s prey
by Stacey Balkun
Jeanann Verlee’s prey offers a bold and nuanced witnessing of what it means to be predator; what it is to be prey. In the speaker’s cataloguing of a lifetime of abuse, the word “prey” becomes extremely physical while still manifesting as an abstraction, “pray.” Verlee’s speaker bears witness to and criticizes the institutional powers that not only allow but even protect a culture of toxic masculinity and misogyny.
With imagery as dark and dreamlike as the works of artist Leonor Fini, this collection bares its teeth. Leonor Fini was an Argentinian surrealist painter whose mythology-infused work often focused on women. Like Fini in her art, Verlee relies in her poetry on space and juxtaposition to create surreal images.
Poems like “Secret Written from inside a Shark’s Mouth” are not only punctuated with facts from the animal world, but they also draw a correlation between predators of the animal kingdom and the sexual predators women face daily: the non-human predator becomes human and non-human again. The poem begins, “It wasn’t all booze and inching toward death. / Love lived there, too.” As the speaker’s abuser completes an act of love (and oppression), care and exploitation are woven together as chalk letters become shark teeth: “Each piercing white letter now buried / beneath layers of slate for decades to come, / reminding whomever next pries loose those shingles / exactly to whom I belong.” Even the roof over our speaker’s head, the proverbial image of protection, is contaminated with her abuser’s manipulation.
Who belongs to whom? How does one overcome a history of abuse to reclaim the body and the self? Verlee actively reassess and retells a story, as if each attempt can better capture the truth. “Rearrangement Poem for the Mansplainer” uses found text (statements or comments by men, known abusers) to find a message hidden within. “Chalk this up to being privileged,” the poem begins, “It can happen because I was born / with the means, male and white, balanced.” The words of an unknown internet commenter are taken apart and put back together again (much like the testimonies of women): “Only happened to assault ____ / and ____ / and ____ / They don’t mind.”
Other poems allude to the ways women—particularly artists—have responded to trauma for centuries. Rife with imagery that reminds me so much of Leonor Fini’s paintings, Verlee’s poem “If We Were Meat” imagines women as “the grey meat / of boiled chickens,” imploring the reader to “[l]ook, our bobbing girlheads / in the pot” before widening the scope: “[i]n the tub. The river.” Through disjointed, disturbing imagery, Verlee shows us that what may be construed as a private affair is actually indicative of a much larger pattern of abuse.
Much like visual art, Verlee’s poetry offers suggestive imagery but no answers. Danger lurks in that space created by an open jaw. Verlee asks us to reach into this mouth; to lean into discomfort and bear witness to a wide picture of trauma: physical, psychological, and sexual. Through witness, perhaps we can find healing.
Here is a gallery of more visual art to consider alongside this collection.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, and Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2018, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, Muzzle, and elsewhere. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn and The Loft.