Review by CLS Ferguson
Magic by division
emp / ti / ness—
worth / less / ness—
rooms must be
sac / ri / fice—
Nicelle Davis’s brilliant collection is equal parts poetry collection and performed historicity, centered around the myth of the walled wife. Academics and lay readers can relate to Davis’ portrayal of the wife through her writing—she is no woman and therefore every woman. The poetry works upon and against the historical accounts of the myth included as epigraphs included in the section entitled “case studies.” Davis answers Performance Studies scholar Della Polluck’s charge in her book, Exceptional Spaces, to make history go, rather than go away.
“We are shaped by story,” writes Lauren K. Alleyne in her introduction to The Walled Wife. She explains the plot from which Davis pulls her collection: “The master builder, Rada is building a citadel, Skadar [and] it’s believed that a woman must be buried within the walls of edifices in order for the buildings to stand.” The woman must be sacrificed, and writes Alleyne, “by inhabiting the perspective of the wife, Davis is able to also explore/explode the action.”
Nicelle’s word play and use of footnoting lays a foundation for the reader’s journey from the beginning. Her first poem, starting the first section: Wall One—Case Studies, which I included as an epigraph, is entitled As a Story Goes: Structurally. The base of the narrative begins and is always coming back to the body, the building, the body in the building. The paradox of the body that will no longer breathe as a means for the building to survive is also encapsulated in the play between a religion that may shun exactly what it is practicing and building upon: superstition. The wife is relied upon to make the building strong.
Further entrenching the patriarchy in the practice of walling the wife is the theme of man seeing himself as savior. In her piece, In Some Versions, the Husband Sends a Bird to Save His Wife, the husband becomes a bird, wanting to save his wife, but the river and winds keep him away. She wants him to save her, but he doesn’t, saying merely to have faith.
Have faith, he tells her. But
it is difficult, she cries. He assures her it wouldn’t be faith3
if it were easy.
Even the husband king does not have the strength to save his wife, but requires that she endure.
It is not only the husband that the walled wife has a relationship with. She also communicates with Rada, the builder. When reading the first section, it is helpful to the reader to reference the footnotes contained in the second section, Wall Two—Foot Notes. The walled wife buries the deepest and most appealing, truthful, insightful emotion in her footnotes or subtext. For example, door.6 I give that. The little 6 wedged between is the vaginal cavity, the opening to the womb. The builder giving her “that” is actually his permission for all who enter and exit the church to pass through her most inner and sacred entrance.
In the first section, Flesh Price demonstrates the loss of connection between the walled wife and her son, ending with a shore is all I know how to cling to. 9 The footnotes allows the reader to see the poems as skeletons so that s/he can interpret and allow the wife to fade a bit into the wall. The footnotes allow no such escape, as demonstrated by #9: In me is a little girl I’ve locked away. When she tries to escape I slap her until palms bleed, that is to say I sing myself to sleep when her tears surface on my face.
Dripping with Liquid Flesh: Parts of an Egg furthers the analogy of the female reproductive system. The analogy of the egg is quite literally analogous to the female reproductive system, but beyond that, there is a depth of betrayal that gives further insight into the anguish of the wife. She mourns the loss of a child she did in fact birth and mother as well as a daughter who never was—who may be the child she yet wishes to conceive or perhaps the child is the wife herself.
The third section, Girl Inside, is an exploration of the author finding herself through the walled wife, this is especially apparent in My Little Box Head Responds/Objects to Found Poetry and the Rewriting of “The Ballad of the Walled-Up Wife”: What I found in “The Wife” is this: I thought I would dig her up, but I only discovered my desire to be brought down, to be bound. In Experiments in Being Buried, the author tries on different walls, until she ends up masterbating in someone else’s bed, as if to demonstrate the equal feelings of pleasure and awkwardness that come with being buried alive.
She continues in this section from awkwardness to pain with Vila: Sacrifice, in which the author names pieces of the body given as a sacrifice in the wall. Ravens Fly in Threes serves as a reminder of being alive and free. The emotion of letting love go manifests as a physical splitting as the author attempts to set herself free, though maybe never successfully.
The fourth section, Wall Three—Retelling: A Countdown serves as the acceptance the author attempts to find of becoming The Walled Wife. In Third Hour of Being Buried Alive, the Wife Thinks of her Last Day in Church: Or Sharp Edges Hidden in the Seamstress, Davis plays with the concept of distancing the elocutionary sacred from the elocutionary profane, as set forth by Paul Edwards in his 1999 Theatre Annual article, Unstoried, by placing them within the same woman as she resists the wall around her. At the End: Day One furthers this by removing all possible romanticizing of the wall (I piss myself . . . I shit myself). The author indicts her readers in First Night in the Wall, the Wife Begins to Haunt Herself, making us all question whether we are always already haunting ourselves:
I claw at the bricks—can hardly keep a fainting swell from drowning me. Mama, she says, mama. And the song stops with mama. Now that she isn’t swallowing all air—I scream the church is falling, and her feet echo like a mischief of rats in my cellar.
The wife hears a daughter she doesn’t have, in the church she has become, screaming out as the only way to save it—though it has consumed and perhaps killed her. In Rada Hears the Wife Crying, the wife, perhaps the author weeps, mourns the loss of her life and her freedom, though when her perpetrator asks what is wrong, she denies her own grief. The reality of her husband betraying her and the stages of grief she experiences from being buried alive become a part of the wife in this section. After the irreparable harm that her perpetrators have cause her, they attempt to smooth things over with the wife in this section of the collection, as if to make amends, but there is never an offer of reparations. In the last poem of this section, Rada Goes to the First Day of Congregation, the man who caused her this pain and loss and the wife herself experience an acceptance of all that has happened after struggling with God. This is a home for a love greater than our individual bodies can hold.
The fifth section contains only one poem, The only words worth reading are written in the margins, suggesting perhaps all of our worthiness is at least slightly off center.
Overall, The Walled Wife commands the reader to acknowledge this woman who has been essentially erased by men, by patriarchy, buried in the walls of a church. The writing is impeccably crafted, each word selected and masterfully placed to take us on the journey of the wife’s betrayal, suffering, rebellion, grief, and acceptance. While most of us do not literally end of physically trapped in a wall, the process Nicelle Davis leads us through in her writing, through the metaphor of the walled wife, leaves us all with a bit better understanding and acceptance of our own demons and walls.
The Walled Wife is available now through Red Hen Press.
CLS Ferguson, PhD speaks, signs, acts, publishes, sings, performs, writes, paints, teaches and rarely relaxes. She and her husband, Rich are raising their daughter and their Bernese Mountain Border Collie Mutt in Alhambra, CA. http://clsferguson.wix.com/