I met Laura Marie Marciano at a reading in an eminently Instagrammable and chic bookshop in Chicago. My partner noticed how taken I was with her work, and encouraged me to introduce myself. Marciano’s work has a clarity of voice and vision to which we can all aspire to.
She read from her book, Mall Brat (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press, 2016), a collection of poems defined by its unflinching approach to sexuality and memory. Mall Brat’s forward (framed as “From the author at fifteen”) sets up the book brilliantly with details of a summer romance between the speaker at fifteen and a man six years her senior. The facts are excruciating to a reader aware of the power imbalance, begging for someone—anyone—to step in and save this child. Instead, Marciano forces the reader to inhabit the speaker’s thought process at that age, and to remind us that our own was equally short-sighted and precarious:
“I was the type of girl who might be featured in some virgin porn, just a little bit plump, with a second day tan, and extreme insecurity—but, also, smart, because I had read a lot and I had an older brother.”
As I read these poems, I find myself returning to a line from Dorothy Allison’s book of essays, Skin: “I can write about years in a paragraph, but the years took years to pass.” There is often a human desire, and a tendency in some poetry, to simplify the past and obscure it with language—to decide on a narrative that is easy to repeat with a few totemic details for emphasis. Marciano refuses a smooth rendition of the past and honors those years, reaching into their layers and maintaining eye contact “as i sink my hand deeper/into the barrel of stones.”
Midway through the book is the poem “Loser Seats,” a sparse two lines that still claim an entire page to themselves. I love this poem and the almost unbearable weight of what is left unsaid:
“wow I sit down and the entire lunch table stands up
later mom asks ‘how was your day’”
But the kicker is that Marciano spends the rest of the pages on either side of this one filling in that blank space like she is stuffing gunpowder down the barrel of a cannon. That blank space contains Baby Phat sweaters and Spanish mass and surprise half-brothers; navigating it is messy and it is brutal, but so was living through it.
Marciano’s ability to pinpoint the physical objects and images that go into creating a person is infectious because it feels voyeuristic, even now when privacy is considered “as quaint as a rotary phone.” Before there was Tumblr or Pinterest, there were bedroom walls, and letting someone into your room to see those walls was giving them a glimpse into your soul. Mall Brat is a teenager’s bedroom walls covered in photos and ripped-out magazine pages, but it is also the glue stains and missing paint that’s left when the adult version of that person takes them down, and has to remember on their own.
Nowhere is this more clear than in “What Was Once Our Whole Lives Is Now Only a Part:”
“I would hold my breath until he stopped yelling at her.
I had a hand-painted, purple, mother-of-pearl
knife in my bag. the color matched my skate guards
and leotard perfectly.
I never thought I’d end up in Valencia or alive.”
The poem runs from one image to another naturally, the way memories do; it is not necessarily clear to an outsider why these things are linked, but there is an understanding that these brain pathways didn’t get there on their own. Attempting to find the links now, so far removed from the events, is fruitless and circular, the same way the speaker was, “born curly/ and became straight and now I am curly again.”
As we enter the final stage of summer when all of the sunny days have baked a lingering heat into the buildings and air, nostalgia is inescapable. Let Mall Brat cut through that haze for you with cannon fire.
Elizabeth O’Connell-Thompson is a poet based in Chicago, where she leads the Wasted Pages Writers’ Workshop Series. Her work has been featured in RHINO, Banshee, and The Wax Paper, among others. Please send your truest thoughts and spookiest chainmail to her at EOTwrites.com