Allison Joseph’s Journey to Wild Empowerment
Like a cook sampling her fare before serving to eager guests, a poet offers intimate snapshots of isolated memory surrounded by the spices of metaphorical limitations. Just as each appetizer provides a preview of the entire meal, poetry nourishes readers without telling the whole story. American literature has a way of serving its poetry as soul food to those familiar with it. Claiming a literary buffet of renowned poets including Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and more, American poetry offers readers visceral glimpses into both the private life of the poet and the surrounding climate that shaped the poet’s verses.
Though born in London, England during 1967, Allison Joseph spent the majority of her late life in America. She was recently honored with the New Georgia Arts Literary Achievement Award and served as a resident artist at Newnan ArtRez and AIR Serenbe. She gained both experience and insight into the reality of life as an American woman. Her talent with words expresses the duality women experience daily – the contrast between women as patriarchal commodities and the ever-evolving awareness found within their once-repressed individuality. Joseph tackles controversial issues, including eating disorders, limitations created by patriarchal standards, and the continuously misunderstood anomaly of women who do not want children. In Mercurial, Joseph takes readers on a journey, from self-hatred to self-appreciation. She serves an elaborate meal, beginning with appetizers of stanzas written with and about childlike confusion and innocence before finishing with an evolution into womanly self-awareness.
The poetic first course starts with a child’s painful realization that women have no identity of their own unless bestowed upon them by others, while men have the right to take up more space and absorb more resources without a desire to ensure others get their needs met as well. Within “Somewhere in the North Bronx, Late Seventies,” Joseph studies the dichotomy between her harsh, ne’er-do-well father and overworked, underappreciated mother. These first two poems begin Joseph’s tour of how the relationship and role of her parents ultimately shaped her view of herself later in her life’s journey. While her father “commands her to pick up his leavings,” her mother “must’ve been tired of being mother, wife, some patient’s nurse…” (4). Thus, Joseph demonstrates a man’s ability to expect even his own daughter to succumb to his demands, while the woman is often only known by the monikers assigned to her by others.
From there, like a messy, overindulgent soup, “Pediophobia” delves into her disgust of dolls. “What was she preparing us girls for?” The poem details how dolls imitate the veneer of a woman’s life by romanticizing eventual motherhood and the external traits of “attractive” women. Compared to the reality that plagues a woman later on in her life, the supposedly innocent toys groom little girls into the aforementioned labels Joseph notes in her previous poems. Perhaps Joseph shirks off the idea that society shouldn’t assign such a complex identity at such an early age to developing girls. Or, maybe she detests the false ideals of plastic perfection also pinned to a woman’s body and personality? The poem could go either way. However, it communicates clearly enough that a little girl’s perception of her environment has far more complexities than an adult perceives.
In her further poems, “Pro-Ana” and “Fault” explore the opposites of a subject’s unrealistic expectations for her body and the poet’s deep appreciation for the flaws present on the bodies of all women. In “Pro-Ana,” the subject adores how her bones jut out from her body, much to the dismay of a deceased mother. Joseph’s way of removing herself from the subject of “Pro-Ana” is a rarity within this collection, begging for an answer as to whether or not she removed herself from a past self that struggled with such an issue. “Faults” lists the imperfect qualities of a “sweat-stained white blouse” and “sixth place science fair ribbons,” a celebration of awkward flaws that all humans possess. The eventual graduation from “Pro-Ana’s” self-destruction to “Faults’” ode of appreciation for the flaws and absurdities of her life suggests an evolution of her voice.
If Mercurial’s multi-course meal begins with identifying the ways in which society defines the woman, then it ends at the crème brûlée of the woman finally creating an identity for herself. Instead of becoming a product of her surroundings, she uses her own inner power to shape her image. The dessert of the meal served by Joseph’s poems ends on richly sweet notes of self-empowerment through bold, fearless living unshaped by the desires of others. “Ode to Sandals” and “Ode to the Red Dress” demonstrate this, as Joseph professes her love for “aimless, sexy ways” that keep her “vulnerable.” She relishes items that remind her of her inner “beast of a color, transfer of heat and power,” the wild side that a patriarchal society would have women subdue for their own comfort. This delicious finish to a multicourse meal offers up a perfectly sinful dessert – sweet enough to make your teeth ache, even as you crave one more slice.
Mercurial travels from the mind of a little girl who feels powerless within her dismal surroundings to a woman made wild with the realization of her own power. It encourages its readers to generate their own identities through honoring their faults, instead of becoming impeded by them, and through shirking the ideals that the surrounding population wouldn’t hesitate to weigh them down with. When one feels consumed by patriarchal standards and societal expectations for who they are supposed to be, Joseph gently reminds her readers that, “When you, undeniably and unforgettably you,” assume control over your own future and selfhood, you evolve into an unstoppable force of nature that bursts with colorful, imperfect individuality.