Thursday, February 16, 2023

Schein, Lady Anarchist Café (2022)

Lorraine Schein, The Lady Anarchist Café: Poems and Stories. Autonomedia, 2022. Pp. 110. ISBN 978-1-57027-391-9. $15.95.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

Speculative poetry is an often overlooked genre in the fields of the fantastic, despite a wealth of practitioners in and out of the mainstream. Lorraine Schein’s collection, The Lady Anarchist Café: Poems and Stories, plays with the conventions of both form and language, cannily utilizing wordplay to heighten response and reaction. Consisting of 41 poems and 9 short stories, the volume is a delightful romp across words and worlds.

The poems are split into two sections, one on “NYC/Anarchy” and one titled “Elsewhere.” The NYC/Anarchy poems recall past and presences of the city and the author’s life, as well as commenting on the city’s gentrification. A number of these poems in the early part of the book flirt with surrealist imagery and spoken word rhythms, while Elsewhere poems are more firmly speculative despite using conventional language. A good example of one of the surreal poems is “The Anarchist Speaks” which reads in toto, ‘Free the teacup / from its saucer, / and line it with fur’ (13). On the one hand, this evokes much of the experimental art of the early twentieth century, while on the other, it is a playful nonsensicality at seeming odds with some of the more politically critical pieces. Indeed, making sense of these dichotomies is a key to the book.

Along those lines, the line between playing with the grimness of our reality and the more hopeful speculation for the future is a deep theme of the book. For instance, several of the poems draw firmly on the imagery and tropes of comics. “Marvel” plays with the particulars of that company’s characters, while both “Comic Book Confidential” and “Word Balloon (A Comic Book Cento)” strike the more autobiographical—or perhaps autobiographical-ish—tone of the knowledgeable reader. In some ways these poems reminded me of Gary Jackson’s collection Missing You, Metropolis (2010), in which verses alternate between the writer and then the imagined voices of various characters. Jackson’s tone was intimate and revealing, while Schein’s is both more playful and more reserved, almost as if she is keeping the reader at arm’s length. And yet Schein’s poems more clearly articulate the tensions between the pages of bright fiction and real life.

“Science Friction” is one of my favorite poems in the book, and it owes much to its wordplay. ‘I was thrown into this whirled’ (48) it begins, and in a few short lines owes its narrative to language that is punned and becomes elastic in Schein’s hands. My other two favorite poems, “Louisa May and the Transcendental” and “The Bronte Sisters,” both play with the lives and work of other authors. “Louisa May” describes Louisa May Alcott, the American author best known for her classic novel Little Women, in the light of current readings of her as a queer and possibly even a trans author. “Father says I’m his son / like a boy” (62) it begins, drawing on extant correspondence, but then devolves back into the constraints of women’s lives spent in domestic duties like sewing. “The Bronte Sisters” focuses on Emily, noting that “And inside every woman is a Heathcliff / who wants, impossibly, to get out” (63).

The book concludes with a brief series of short stories. The titular “The Lady Anarchist Café” provides the science fictional locus of the book, in which a community distant in time and place provides impetus for women to come together and build new lives for themselves. “Theories of Light” draws on the science of light, going quickly from early 18th c. discussions of electricity to the development of nuclear bombs in the 20th. This brief piece is about everyday life and the threat of annihilation, which of course speaks directly to our frightening present. Finally, “The Last Revolution” imagines an exuberant future with lesbian leaders in the White House, poets in Congress, and with work and clocks abolished.

One thing that struck me about all of Schein’s work is the level of almost critical distance between the writer and the reader. Much of contemporary poetry strikes a confessional tone, lending a feeling of intimacy—even if imagined—between the author and audience. Schein’s approach, as well as the material itself, feels like a performance; it was very easy to read these works and imagine them spoken aloud in a poetry slam venue. This aesthetic sense of orality is a quiet strength to the work as a whole that really worked for me as a reader.

The subject matter of The Lady Anarchist Café is probably further afield of what readers of The Future Fire typically look for, and yet, as I mentioned before, genre poetry tends to be overlooked enough that seeking it out is worthwhile. I was surprised by what an absorbing and quick read the book is; typically with such volumes I have to pause intermittently, either to reread or just contemplate, while here I read straight-though as if gulping down a novel.

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