You say you want a revolution? What if that revolution meant turning yourself inside out instead of turning you around. What if it meant accepting the Hieronymous Bosch painting of your soul and letting the world leer at it through gritted teeth? Courtenay Schembri Gray’s “The Maggot on Maple Street” is a deep dive into the psyche of a woman in modern society where the inside must be turned over like earth, and the growth must take place in the public view. The pitfalls, insecurities, judgment and the violence that can be a woman’s life upon examination, is explored in beautifully gruesome language. This exploration takes you to the dark and hidden places and there is nowhere to hide.
In the poem “Saturn (De)vours” Schembri Gray contemplates the what-ifs of societal judgment vs. the sometimes much harsher personal judgment. It’s a cage match and there are no clear winners. For example:
“What if I want to turn myself into a stain
on the white shirts of men?
Would that be unwomanly of me?”
I imagine the lipstick stain of the passing fancy, I imagine the passing fancy as a real person. One who wants to be there, but wonders.
“Bare Fruits’ starts at the transition from the perfect protected feminine pre-menses, including the rose scented sanitary pad, to the transformation into reviled, controlled woman. Turning this poem over in my mind, it felt like it was written far in the past, and that there was an ancient truth that we have long ago stopped talking about. It made me angry. The line that provides the best example of this is
“To the peanut gallery, my labia is no
Longer something fragile, rather a vessel
To be butchered by a baby’s head”
The peanut gallery as social media or the public at large, reducing the narrator to a holding cell. Timely for the current attack on reproductive rights. This is something that has always been the case in our world. Everyone’s always had a front row seat between your legs. This poem points it out bluntly and without apology. Poetry should move you, but Schembri Gray’s gives you a shove.
“June Bug” has an Emily Dickinson style sentiment, and I love a good rhyme, but it must be a GOOD rhyme for it to not feel stilted or stodgy. Schembri Gray uses the rhyme to make her indelible mark in the reader’s mind. The imagery of bloody coat hangers and lanterns, an ominous glimpse into the future, surfs the edge of woman’s folly and its potential dangers. “Charge of the Revolutionary Gun” uses a creative rhyme scheme working its way through every line. The rhythm isn’t predictable and surprised me a few times. These poems sing.
Throughout the collection, we are witness to transformation. “No Baby, No Cry” is one of those pieces that make you cringe, and brings up feelings you may not be ready for, but are part of the plan. We shift from child to woman and back again in the same poem. Maybe on the precipice of forced ‘womanhood’, she explores the fine line, always in question. The following line, reminiscent of Plath, ushers the concept in.
“If they knew the fermentation
of his blood they would call
me a doe-eyed baby riding the
storm, unaware and muddy.”
“The Maggot of Maple Street” is wearing its guts on the outside. This is a brave collection. It is an angry collection. Schembri Gray isn’t looking for sympathy. Maybe not even for understanding. She is just trying to show you something, and that can be hard to accept. She collapses the notion that bringing the dark into the light cures. These concepts don’t look prettier in the illumination. What she is doing is inviting the reader to recognition. This collection is a mirror held up, and one can be changed by reading it, whether or not you are ready for it.