Nerve Chorus
by Willa Carroll
The Word Works, 2018
80 pages, $17.00
Review by Maximilian Heinegg

Nerve Chorus (The Word Works, 2018) is an apt title for the startling poems of Willa Carroll. They have nerve. They have the courage to be confessional, addressing her father’s cancer and subsequent passing, and her experience as a survivor of abuse. They are also as sensitive as nerves: hyper-alert, picking up pleasure, pain, and the spectrum between. The aggregate of these sensations can be heard as a chorus, but also a group of dancers, for the way the individual poems move separately, and together, becoming “forces on show / fractures in the chorus.”

The greatest fracture, her father’s cancer, is announced to us by the “chorus in scrubs” in ”Choriambush,“ which asks us to explore “a secret room / inside the song”, “a father’s lungs / confettied with asbestos.” His death (in the later section of poems) is anticipated by her brother, a trauma doctor, working on a “man’s / heart not wanting to stop, until it does.”

However grim, she also details her great affection for her father. In ”Mesothelioma,“ she writes, “Dust clouds followed him home. / I costumed myself in his work clothes” – which reminds me of Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,“ where the child romanticizes a damaged parent. Elsewhere, in the end of ”Lamentation Street,“ “night slips its costume / or my father his body” an image that is as lovely as it is haunting. Her affection for him is clear in the memorable narrative of ‘Dodge & Burn Boston Navy Yard, 1967’ where he takes LSD for “a wild edge to his protest.” Through these poems, she gives us a vivid picture of a complicated man; a man to whom the book is dedicated, but also one she wishes was more of a protector.

In ”Juveniliac” and ”Dear Mentor” she details her victimhood – and, as harrowing as it is, manages to detail the events, allowing the crime itself to damn her abuser, who also abused her mother. Yes, the poems are intense, and profoundly sad, but they are also brave. She gives herself the match to burn his memory (and his power over her), and in ”Mammal vs. Reptile,“ makes sure there’s no question who’s who. Using persona works well for the poet, even if her voice is detectable throughout.

In “Role of Girl as Tree,” she reimagines the Greek myth of Daphne, “without the chase,” to eliminate the age-old treatment of the chase as romantic pursuit. After all, no one wants to be chased. In the story, Daphne’s father transforms his daughter into a tree to prevent Apollo’s sexual assault. “My father is not a river god / he cannot assist / The shape shifting is my own trick.” The allegory of the father not being able to protect the daughter is poignant, and echoes earlier poems that suggest she had to do some of the parenting herself. So, in Carroll’s version of the myth, it is the daughter’s response, her response, to “shape-shift”; to choose to become the laurel tree. In this way, she uses the classical tale to address her own sexual trauma, but also to empower herself as the one who chooses the metamorphosis. This use of personae to tell her life’s story works well. Through the masks she chooses to wear as a poet — here Daphne, and elsewhere a wolf, a mammal, sound, or alter-egos from “past lives” — she allows her own story to become nuanced. These masks, often rooted in folk tales or myths, complement the recognizable roles she plays (when writing without the masks): daughter, victim trying to summon strength, lover, and poet.

She tends to romanticize the urban, from her coming-of-age poems about Rochester to her Ginsberg-esque admiring poems of NYC, and as a result, some of the poems come across as the poet using a sort of ethos transference; the city is cool, and by extension, so am I. However, she has a sense of humor about herself (“Cut my cracker-jack-ass”; “pin the tale on the honkey”), and a sense of humor about others (“Yoga with Monica Lewinsky”), where she admits she uses her interaction with Monica when she needs something to talk about at parties. She also paints a portrait of her mother-in-law as a badass, who drinks vodka and not “water because / fish fuck in it.”

The penultimate poem, “Memorabiliac” begins the poet’s farewells – to her past selves as adult, “a flag in the wind”, and the child, “half-orphaned until my father called;” and to him. In the final poem, “Coda,” (which is also the final part of a ballet), she writes:

We are carrion & meteor, our meat
Dressed in fire & diaphanous gas.
How to measure dark matter
amidst bright coordinates of stars?
At the cusp, as breath constricts,
slows— we betroth to zero,
held in a dilating spotlight.

She directs the spotlight of the afterlife toward him, or perhaps her memory of him – but it is also the spotlight she is walking into herself, as the author of a first book. “The spotlight is a mean sun,” she writes in ”No Final Curtain,“ one that leaves nothing to hide behind. But unquestionably Carroll has the courage and talent to stand in it.