Wendy Lee Spacek, Psychogynecology, Monster House Press, 2015

Reviewed by Zack Hatfield

[Review Guidelines]

My attempts at maintaining a dream journal have always ended up in failure; no more than a few nights would pass until I forgot to pen an entry, misremember my dream, or had simply endured a night of dreamlessness. On mornings or middles of nights that I did remember to jot down my unconscious experiences, I couldn't evade the feeling that simply rendering certain episodes or images on the page was a betrayal of that actual dream. That dreams belonged to their own specific language. I suppose people feel this way about history too—the lie we inscribe about past experiences, the paradox of erasure that we corroborate by creating a written record. These political and personal erasures are brimful in Wendy Lee Spacek's slim poetry debut, Psychogynecology, a collection published by Monster House Press that finds both solace and malaise in memory and the self.
     All dreams have keys, and Psychogynecology's is its epigraph, taken from the poet Bernadette Mayer's "The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica":

Be strong Bernadette
Nobody will ever know
I came here for a reason
Perhaps there is a life here
Of not being afraid of your own heart beating
Do not be afraid of your own heart beating
Look at very small things with your eyes
& stay warm

Spacek embraces the poem's instruction, looking at very small things so closely that their textures resemble something galactic. But what is a very small thing? Life, Spacek insists, is a very small thing, or maybe it is something that requires the endless carrying of small and large things, things that can break you or things that can lift you.

I never know I feel what I'm saying.
I never know what I am saying.

I never say I know.
I never say I am.

These lines, from the opening poem "One Thousand Black Cats," introduce us to Spacek's voice, one of wavering conviction. She achieves a perfect degree of clumsiness in her language, one that demands not only rereadings of the text, but also unreadings—approaching the poems from different angles, reliving them the way one experiences a dream undreamt, voluntarily forgotten. In my experience, recurring dreams rarely feel like reruns of the imagination, but instead as if, with each iteration, a different cinematographer is hard at work. Spacek's internal cinematographer inscribes these poems with multiple textures and meanings. 


Maybe there is no such thing as a poetic self-examination. What I mean is, don't Spacek's interrogations of the psyche, the body, the spiritual, youth, and memory become the light that develops our own image? Photography plays a vital role in Psychogynecology, if not an obvious one:

  1. On the cover, the poet is depicted as an infant being cradled "like a bag of ice." We learn in the final poem the mother is cut out, literally defaced by the father. The image looks like it's been run through the mosaic tool on Photoshop, a distorted simulation of a fractured family portrait.

  2. In "Hypnagogia," the speaker declares that "The past is a locked storage closet in a strip-mall's dentist's office brimming with brown-stained boxes," and later that "This box is full of bike's spokes, ship's ruts, only-one shoes, slides in Kodachrome."

  3. Like lives, Kodachrome is forever, until it fades away.


Spacek's words begin to feel like those of a somniloquist. "I'm the kind of person/who could understand just about anything," she intones in "Night Gardener." Other poems combine a phantasmagoric lyricism with an impulse for narrative, as in the Lynchian "The Battle on the Second Floor Landing" after a man asks the speaker if she could find a gun to kill him with:

I looked all through the house. I found yellow
steaming vials of fluorescent poison tablets.

Knives, hammers, razors, ratchets, bricks—
many things to kill a man but no gun.

I went back to the landing.
Where the man had mutated into my black German Shepherd

with an arrow through her abdomen.
She whimpered, dragging her slender body across the white bed.

The enjambment here can feel like more than just a poetic apparatus or negative space, but more like a distance of void, apneas in a dreamless sleep. Psychogynecology seethes with such haunted imagery, the sounds of bruxism between adolescence and adulthood.    


In the song "Wendy," the Beach Boys croon, "The farthest thing from my mind/was the day that I'd wake up to find/my Wendy/Wendy left me alone."
     "My therapist and I both have names that appear in Beach Boys' songs," Spacek reveals in "Anxious Dreamer." You can watch it on YouTube, the Beach Boys singing on Ed Sullivan in 1964, in crisp black and white. Al Jardine thrums a surf-tinged riff on his Jaguar and then they dive into the heartache. Maybe they have more in common than one would initially think, "Wendy" and Psychogynecology. Both work within a similar mode—the lament. In Wilson/Love's song, it's a strange mingling of gloom and cheer, while Spacek reconciles her pain with a sense of wonder. Impossibilities become possible in her work. Both Spacek and the Beach Boys explore a kind of phantasmagoric suburbia inherent in Kodachrome America, though the Beach Boys prefer to take part in it rather than subvert it, and Spacek's impressions are somehow unquestionably Midwestern rather than West Coast.
     Spacek spends her debut challenging the percolations of the patriarchy, often veering into uncomfortable, but necessary territory. As we read we are forced to bear witness to the speaker's life as it plays out in snapshot poems—the quotidian afternoons where "the hemlocks had a hum, the hydrangeas had a hymn," instances of sexual trauma, a reportage of penetralia. 
     "Wendy I wouldn't hurt you like that," they harmonized in 1964. And it's pretty, numinous even. Which maybe is why it is so hard to believe. Spacek seems to be in disbelief about life. (Why should it be credible?)
     Psychogynecology is speckled with pithy declarations that testify to a firm belief in necessary suffering. In the lines "Every thing/makes a bed/and lies/down," note the smallness afforded by "Every thing" versus "Everything"—the space registers a completely different implication. It reminds me of the poem from the epigraph, its tantalizing final line that ends without a question mark, begging breathlessly to be continued:

If I suffered what else could I do

Read it again. What else could I do? What other options would be left? How could I go deeper into life? Maybe Psychogynecology has picked up where Mayer left off—with this line showing us, with abstract clarity, the way to keep going, and what else one can do.