Book Review: The Girl Who Wasn’t and Is
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
March came in like a lamb around here and is exiting like a lion, in winter. Anastasia Walker came into this world as a baby boy and will live the rest of her life as a grown woman. March is Women’s History Month, and Walker has been living it—alive at a historic time for women, in terms of liberation, rights, and women coming into their own, as well as backlash and trouble, and a historic moment of awareness for transgender women and men, with acknowledgement of all the complexities there. I love how the title of this book is fully handling that complexity: The Girl Who Wasn’t and Is. In a way, transitioning in midlife, Walker never was the “girl” she wanted to be, and is now a woman with that lost girl inside her (as well as the lost boy, from another point of view). The poems and images in the book honor that gap. Even the cover shows us what is missing as well as what is there, a picture of black cave darkness with an opening looking out onto a blue-sky world. It’s like Plato’s image of humans in a cave, having lived facing the back wall, now turning to see a way out.
And Anastasia Walker has come out in a glorious and courageous way, showing in her poems, notes, a personal essay, and visual images her particular journey of desire, awareness, and reflection. She also honors the people who died on their own journeys, beaten, murdered by fearful, hateful people who couldn’t accept them the way they were. The violent poems are hard to read, of course, reflecting those difficult lives and shocking deaths, but are rendered with compassion. I say “reflecting” all too aware of how mirrors trouble Walker, showing her things she didn’t want to see or couldn’t yet see.
Photographs, too, teach the poet (and this reader) who she was and is. Walker’s essay “After and Before (Four Photos)” recalls a selfie, a holiday snapshot, a passport photo, and a black and white photo from childhood. There’s a beautiful collage of grown-up Anastasia beside her childhood self, linked by torn images with eyes like sky and lips painted red. Photos strewn throughout the book show us beauties and wonders of nature, other apertures and gaps, and brokenness.
Her title poem, placed perfectly first, as introduction, prepares us for everything. In it I find the photo collage (in the later essay) almost predicted by the classical reference to a sculptor:
A Pygmalion in bricolage
Fashioning with paint and glue
The face glimpsed through the interstices…
There are the gaps—interstices—that also somehow mend. And in this same poem, here she is as a “fugitive cursing her truth-crossed mirror” and “a girl / Waking to a dream of herself.”
There are other classical/mythical references in the book, connecting this speaker and her dilemma to our ancient stories of violence, on the one hand, and our quest for meaning and purpose on the other. Philomela is here, who was raped, her tongue cut out so she couldn’t tell, but who wove her story into a tapestry. Cassandra, who spoke the truth but wasn’t believed. Medusa, killed by Perseus, a male hero aided by Athena, a goddess. In the poem “Maenad,” referring to female followers of Dionysus, are these remarkable lines about mythical justice:
Then came your verdict
In kind on our captor,
The man who loathed women
Transformed into woman
(His pride felled by wonder
Or something inside him)
And fed to our anger—
A terrible justice.
Walker doesn’t try to solve everything, just lays it out, a tapestry of her own. Side by side with myths are facts, references to popular culture—Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable—and poems of political activism and social justice. And the elegies, breaking our hearts.
This book provides a rich reading, viewing, and learning experience and is published by an innovative art and publishing studio that specializes in interdisciplinary projects and “queer creators.” It is a home for artists who might not feel welcome with more traditional publishers and is thus producing books, exhibits, and performances we wouldn’t have a chance to see elsewhere! I am grateful to have learned about The Girl Who Wasn’t and Is and am glad she is.