A daring experiment, The Exhibit (Hyacinth Girl Press), by Lauren Eggert-Crowe, might intrigue you, if you’ve ever loved—or suffered the illusion that you had. As Eggert-Crowe specifies early in the sequence, “We had been thinking the exhibit was about love, but it turned out to be something else.” And yet, The Exhibit holds many images of love and many references to it. Imagine visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History crossed with a carnival funhouse, where the museum docent has read your diary.
A particularly poignant snippet: “In this exhibit: When you were skinnier, you kissed someone here. Three years later/to the day/you kiss another and you are backwards.” Eggert-Crowe takes the universals—the body, love, social anxiety—and makes them feel alien and intimate all at once. Hearts are locked in plastic boxes; we can all relate to our own heart, but seeing those of others, so coldly and clinically, is disconcerting.
“In the exhibit, everything is prettier than you,” challenges Eggert-Crowe. “Except for the art. The art is never prettier than you.” Here, the art is pretty. Some poems, all of them untitled, stretch towards beauty. Several seem to highlight the notion of the male gaze—“the women who look like the woman you would love,” for example. Body-image issues pop up a few times, enough to both provoke thoughts of how society views women and make the reader a little self-conscious: I found myself wondering how I would feel in front of the mirror in The Exhibit.
The Exhibit has an eerie power to see inside you. Perhaps it is the frequent use of the second person, which has the potential to be tiresome, but instead lets you slip inside the poems. It is very easy to picture oneself strolling through the space of the exhibit; the narrator describes seeing herself (?) in mirrors and is even photographed. With lines such as, “The exhibit is your brain and its wordy placards no one reads,” it’s hard to feel grounded, but this unsettling adds to the thrill of reading.
The reader is caught, enmeshed in an intimate use of the second person, and hurled through the ever-changing exhibit. We learn about the heart through a sort of mock surgery. We learn about astrology. We’re suddenly forced to give passwords, caught off guard by dreams; we have the very earth fall out from under us as a bridge of rope forms. On the whole, the quixotic and strange nature of the poems is successful. Sometimes the shift in landscapes is difficult to follow: in one poem the speaker is not only in a “lightning storm,” but also viewing strange objects and a child’s body, while cryptic quotes—“He didn’t mean what he said” and “You assign meaning to texture”—float in italics. It is difficult to discern the context that would make sense of these many stimuli.
The speaker provides a haunting glimpse of those people outside the exhibit, as well as a few of the fellow attendees. I appreciated the shape of the poems; the majority of them were crowded together in square blocks reminiscent of—what else?—museum information placards. The reader is left with a lot of negative space with the near-luxurious spacing of the poems.
Thematically, they fit together well, but can be read separately. Try them out of order on a second read, as you would a series of booths at the fair (think less of a freak show and more of a traveling carnival). The Exhibit, at times, meshes the dream-self and the self that is viewing the exhibits. This merging makes you feel a little uncertain of where you are.
There are times when Eggert-Crowe seems torn as to what style to evoke: choppy phrases? Artfully dropped ends of sentences? It is easy to get lost in the changing styles, just as it appears to be easy to get lost in one’s own past while trawling through the exhibits. The shifts in style add to the mood, making the reader just as uncertain as the speaker, who re-engages her audience with conceits such as, “Sometimes you are bored with all of the exhibits.
So you play a game in which you pretend you are an art thief and tell us what you would steal.”
It is intriguing to tease out the identity of this judgmental audience; perhaps it is the audience we all imagine, in some capacity, watching us. Is the exhibit simply the world? We hear cars on their morning commute; we enter storms; we are held captive by the exhibit. The idea of the world encapsulated into one exhibit is fascinating and would explain many of the changes within the poems.
On the whole, The Exhibit is worth the price of admission and attention, leaving us with vivid imagery and a bit of relief to be outside again—albeit with the desire to go back.
Mariann Grantham D’Arcangelis is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Master of Arts in Literature from the Florida State University, where she did everything from broadcasting radio news to reading for the Southeast Review. Based in Tallahassee, Florida, she loves urban fantasy, Tupelo honey, and all things feline.
Lauren Eggert-Crowe has written for The Rumpus, The Millions, Salon, The Nervous Breakdown, & the L.A. Review of Books. She is the contributing editor at TROP and a regular contributor to The Midnight Mixologist. Her poems have been published in Interrupture, Sixth Finch, SpringGun, Eleven Eleven, Terrain.org, DIAGRAM, and Puerto Del Sol, among others. She has another chapbook, titled In The Songbird Laboratory, from Dancing Girl Press (2013).