major characters in minor films
By Kristy Bowen
Sundress Publications, 2015
85 pages, $12.41
Reviewed by April Michelle Bratten
“I am so dangerous,” Kristy Bowen writes in her poem “blackmail fantasy,” “even the wallpaper hates me.” An uniquely cinematic experience, major characters in minor films directs its reader through a wicked landscape where dreams and reality, movies and real life, juxtapose as well as intertwine. The I in this poetry collection, Bowen’s fifth full-length, is dangerous. She is rebellious, unashamed, contradictory, and “only sometimes on fire.” A self-proclaimed “bad daughter” and “capable of the most serious damage,” Bowen’s narrator slides quite seamlessly from a tumultuous childhood into a fevered adulthood.
Readers of Bowen might recognize some of the poems in major characters in minor films, as several were borrowed from a few of Bowen’s previous chapbook projects: brief history of girl as match (Dusie E-Kollective, 2007), havoc (dancing girl press, 2011), and the infamous I*HATE*YOU*JAMES*FRANCO (Sundress Publications, 2012). Cleverly pieced together, major characters in minor films creates a surreal and wonderfully grotesque film for the mind. In the poem “flail,” Bowen writes, “If this were a movie, / it would taste like milk. Slightly turned.” It entices its reader, and circulates its concept until the end, when everything seemingly clicks into place. This book would be best read in three sittings or fewer to fully experience this theatrical effect.
Although a dark read, major characters is also witty and sometimes even snarky. The narrator is not only aware of her faults but she also admits to the reader that she is aware of these shortcomings, giving this book a refreshing and engaging tone: “If I stay perfectly still, you can make / out the hairline cracks in my story, / the bit of salt in the cake.” At one point, Bowen’s narrator claims that she doesn’t “want to be the sort of girl” who writes poems about mermaids. A little further into the book, however, she cunningly places a poem titled “Mermaid Moon” on the page. Bowen excites in contradictions; leading her narrator to do exactly what she says she will not do, placing her in plots she plans to escape from, and roles she willingly accepts, only to later regret taking on.
Bowen uses a combination of more traditional poetry styles (free verse stanzas) and prose poetry divided into five sections. Both styles were successful throughout the collection, but the stream-of-conscious prose poems draw the reader in even more, especially those of I*HATE*YOU*JAMES*FRANCO. Bowen intelligently and diligently takes on Franco, challenging his validity in the literary community, and what his presence in said community means for other poets. “Poetry is dead, James Franco, and I’m convinced you killed it.” However, this section also reflects very heavily on the narrator, comparing and contrasting her reality with what she imagines is Franco’s:
Mostly what bothers me is your listlessness. It makes me feel like a dull pencil or a broken wheel. I keep meeting men like you who have problems sleeping and they all require careful handling like horses that might spook. They tend to be frantic, checking their smartphones impatiently and looking at the door. Maybe I bore them, James Franco. Maybe I bore you.
The James Franco section is certainly a highlight of the collection, but by no means the only highlight. The last section, celluloid moon: a love letter in 13 parts, ends this collection brilliantly. Bowen’s narrator slides in and out of memories, consumes darkness, becomes consumed by darkness, and reaches a level of acceptance. Or is it denial? Bowen’s contradictory narrator strikes again, coming full circle. “Only at the end does it make some sort of sense.”
Bowen uses paranormal imagery throughout major characters, often when invoking memories of the narrator’s childhood. There are references to Ouija boards, ghosts, zombies, monsters, the ritual of “Bloody Mary,” and the childhood game of levitation, “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” The child within the adult is an idea that Bowen embraces and uses to enhance her narrator’s perception of reality. The reader is left to wonder if memory is reality, and if so, what is the importance of reality, anyway? In “honeyed moon,” Bowen writes, “Let’s pretend we’ve just met. Let’s pretend we’re strangers. I am still dark inside like a fox. Let’s pretend we’re sleeping. Let’s pretend when the animals come for us.”
The narrator exists in a unique space where reality does not seem to matter. This was a compelling notion in major characters in minor films, one that is not easily shaken from a readers’ shoulders, and one that brought interesting and thought-provoking poetry.