Queen of Pentacles by Audrey T. Carroll (Choose the Sword Press, 2016)
Reviewed by Hannah Cohen
When looking through my tarot deck one night, I picked out the Queen of Pentacles card and thought about her meaning. When upright, she is motherly, down-to-earth, and warm—when reversed, she is a woman in a toxic environment, neglected and imbalanced. Her identity, along with all the good and bad it comes with, permeates Queen of Pentacles, Audrey T. Carroll’s first poetry collection about mental illness, being queer, and the healing (as well as the destruction) that comes from the feminine self.
A writer accomplished in both fiction and poetry, Carroll’s ability to lace narrative with image is an admirable feat. We’re treated to a wide array of poetic forms, from sestinas to prose poems to classic free verse. The opening poem, “Darling Daughter,” gives a preview of just how masterful the flow from traditional format to centered poems to invented white space is:
“them, dear child, of the female narrative not born
of temptation & sin but of the blood of your blood
one generation to the next.” (5)
Recalling the structure of 19th century epistolary novels, the reader is immediately pulled into the “petticoat conspiracy,” and the image alone regards the still-ongoing oppression of women. The diction is lovely and violent: compare “cleave” next to the delicate word “rings”, and “pastel bubble” after the slick sound of “steel”. Short but not sweet, “Darling Daughter” sets up the framework for the entire book.
Much of the poems in the earlier pages of this collection center around a young woman, and one can understand the burden of sexuality and her development as an adolescent in “Unstuck in Time”:
“childhood, river of her womanhood, maiden becoming mother
almost against her will. Something borrowed, & what will lie
beneath the white gown, tucked away from prying eyes.” (16)
Several moments are layered with the fantastic, yet are all too familiar with the pains of growing up: braces, young love, that strange state of limbo. Even the near-mythical Robert Johnson makes an appearance, as well as ravens and demons. There’s a sense that something else looms ahead, a future unknown. The most intriguing mentions are the ocean and river. Although they’re two different bodies of water, the inclusion of both reinforce the notion of growing up that change is part of something greater—it’s apart from us, but still part of us. This is Carroll’s touch—mixing in the real and unreal to create an experience unique and valid for poet and reader.
A personal favorite and a powerfully beautiful poem, “Sestina for Steel Daughters” has a soft sharpness in its words. Fragility and flammability create a perfect union in the lines “her grace can’t withstand flame, even / laying close / to the whispering earth” (9). That personal connection to earth resurfaces in later poems dealing with the speaker’s spirituality and re-discovery of her heritage as a woman. The mother in this poem also plays a strong role as figurative and literal: “mother knows that break / better than any other, can name …/ the idea of anything beyond the line” (10). The stunning last stanza leaves the door open for interpretation: how the ambiguous they “break her to make her even / a name forgotten on lips learned to close” (9).
The idea of falling apart on the inside and out, as well as the act of healing are tangled up without clean definition, much like real life. Consider “Reform”, about struggling with an eating disorder and an abusive relationship. Metaphors of butchery are described as “shave the fat” and “flesh”, and how food represents more (or less) nourishment for the speaker. The “you” in this poem “[r]ob[s] [her] body of fresh mozzarella from the corner deli … / rob[s] [her] body of anything but the slice of bloody roast beef” (28). Despite the pain, the ending is hopeful in its rebuilding: “[my] body will no longer be the body that knew his self-indulgence” (28).
Her prose poems, in particular “Scattered”, “Bounty of the Crone”, and “Sacrifice” delve into the more mystic and maternal undercurrents of this book. This form allows Carroll to create near-flash fiction moments about female identity, bonds and Wiccan practices in a deliberate structure; best seen in “Tradition” with its ten parts. We’re given the festivals of Samhain and Lughnasadh, Litha and others—what grounds the reader amidst the spiritual is the secularly titled “New Year’s Eve” stanza:
year, no thin veils to
feel dead love peering
through at you; wonder how
another year is gone, wonder if.” (31)
This section gives pause and allows the reader to reexamine the passage of time, whether something like calendars and notions of time are instrumental to growing up, or if it’s the actions and consequences of those events that cause development. Like the previous stanzas before about rebirth as harvest, there’s also a struggle to move past the pain of not being able to quite exist as herself. The last poem “Her Page” also questions her queer existence and importance in the world and other people: “there’s no point / if she won’t / be recognized—by / one? three? five? how much / does it take / to be worth trying?” (59).
What truly draws a reader to Carroll’s work is how seamlessly she links the natural and material world. The mention of steel and metal textures elevates the grace and instability in this collection: “metal catching / the sun’s fire, roots drawing / up” (8), “song of / silver against silver, off-key / and rusting” (17), “the zipping whir of burning rubber” (7). Toward the end of the book, “Coal Town” delves into that industrial language and becomes a kind of fable. One doesn’t have to be from or even live in such a place to literally taste the fire and dirt; words such as “combustion”, “lit”, and “soot-laden” immerse both reader the poet into this tired town. In a striking move, the religious/spiritual atmosphere seeps through the final lines: “Faith in the holy grounds to keep the earth / unsunken and suddenly flood-filled channels are only ever / waiting for impending collapse” (56). Echoing destruction and the environment, “Coal Town” is like a gritty fairytale, one of mortality and survival.
Queen of Pentacles is a collection for those who are always creating and breaking themselves; though seen through the queer female view, anyone who’s experienced disorder, growth, and damage will find themselves re-reading these poems and discovering new interpretations, much like the tarot card herself.