Lilting at Windmills — a review of Stacia M. Fleegal’s ‘Versus’ by Jason Lee Miller

At Don Quixote’s house, before his journey, there was nothing more dangerous than a poet. Centuries later, one wonders if a poem can still cause any real movement—if a protest poem read from the steps of a capitol can cause any chip in the marble, or in the windmill across the way. Stacia Fleegal’s Versus acknowledges one’s doubts about the real efficacy of political verse before owning that disbelief and sending out marching orders to poets and artists everywhere.  This work is unabashed, bitingly witty, sarcastic and unapologetic—the work of a self-described pacifist feminist that needs a better word than “ballsy”—and the poet’s target would be shocking to a mainstream American audience that likely will never read her: the beloved American mythos itself.

Actually, that should be “american” mythos. The poet doesn’t capitalize, downgrades the term and places it on the shelf of fallen empires as opportunities for huddled masses brave the oceans “in rickety little boats”—a clear, sad and ironic allusion to the Pilgrims’ journey every american learns in school. In the poet’s modern america, the present is stuck in a past where women and minorities still struggle disproportionately, where division and difference are (re)enforced, where the Land of Opportunity and Mother Earth have been raped, exploited, and blamed for their own attractiveness, where justice is a privilege of the rich—and where The Man still thrives, still thumbs down the proletariat.

But in this collection The Man receives a tongue-lashing so complete and penetrating that a reader finding himself to be white, heterosexual, and male must assure himself Fleegal’s speaking of a mythical creature and not an actual one. Once reassured, the reader can move on to some remarkable phrasings, rhythms, and visualizations aimed like a thousand slingshot stones at totalitarian american kitsch. Before those shots can fly, though, the poet must tackle a seemingly bigger obstacle: overcoming the realist reader’s doubt that rocks and poems can truly penetrate the armored tanks of an empire in the same way Cervantes took down the Troubadours.

Fleegal introduces, then, the “pretty decoy,” the title of the first section of the book, wording that reappears later to suggest the poem itself is a subtle weapon, one that seduces and by quiet and devastating trickery blindsides the reader with truth. The author plays with this, even makes fun of herself at times, as in the poem, “Spending My Inheritance from Whitman.” In it, she asks Uncle Walt, “since the world’s most lucrative career path is poetry,” where his other children are, and why they aren’t, like her, walking  “a war line, pocket picked, toeing elegies into the mud.”

Perhaps those missing children are afraid of the scathing doubt cast by the narrator of “The Poet’s One Reader Fires off an Email.”

“Do you feel better now, poet?

Well, you shouldn’t. For all your finger-

paintings, you didn’t save a single

polar bear, rape victim, or world.”

Maybe not, but Fleegal seems intent on reviving the Earth Goddess anyway, as though these verses can serve as incantations that will rouse and induce her protection—her rebellion; and there is, beneath the hell-fury scorn of femininity (unless that, too, is a restrictive and “lofty idea of femaleness” the author detests), a defiant optimism. In “Farce Poetica,” Fleegal writes:

“Nothing says how futile my poetry

is like filament: threadbare. Formulaic

as cross-stitches. Scoff all you want—there IS

a sapling underneath an ancient oak

in my backyard, and it DOES inspire all,”

In total, Versus is a lyrical essay, a call to arms reminiscent of those proffered by the famous pamphleteers of the American Revolution. Like any good essay, once the problem is laid out and the thesis proved, there is a call to action, which in this case is put forth by the poem itself. In “This Poem Begs the Revolution for a Job,” the poem requests:

“Use me. I am worthy. Hide in me

all the things you’d say if

being a poet was still dangerous. I am

dangerous. I am”

Immediately thereafter, Fleegal offers the “Instruction Manual for a Revolutionist,” where the reader is instructed how to use the poem and admonished to understand how, collectively, small things can do big damage.

“Don’t be afraid of paper cuts or bullet holes,

or people who don’t consider these the same.”

In contrast to a world of quiet, contemplative Zen poetry, this poetry uses the righteous anger of the historically oppressed and pushes that rage through the trumpet. It’s peaceful, but not quiet, a call to those who believe in the mighty pen…or paintbrush…or Art. It’s a call for dreamers to wake up and charge their windmills. And who knows? Throw enough verse at them, they may actually fall.

Readers interested in Versus can purchase it directly from the poet’s website:

Published by alangarvey


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