Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls
Erika Meitner’s third book, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, connects a pantheon of female archetypal characters – alien abductees, lost girls, saints and sinners – in a collection that shows compassion and insight for the out-of-place and out-of-luck. Many of the poems masquerade as advice columns and self-help pieces, disguising the fact that the poems are, yes, warnings for vigilant girls.
Streetwise and smart, the poems themselves are straightforward narratives, and though the “I” may shift a bit from poem to poem, they follow a regular progression, from angst-fraught adolescence in the first section to adulthood in the second section. The poems lack linguistic trickery, but make no mistake: this is sharp, clear writing with edge. Her first poem, the title poem, warns the reader at the beginning of the book:
Be the sleeping sister who sees no one.
Stay tucked in. Later, hand over
a list of suspects: the handyman,
the bachelor neighbor, the uncle
who was never really your uncle.
This idea of being an observer at the scene of danger repeats throughout poems that bring up alien abduction, all night vigils, missing children and disasters. The outside world of these poems hums with malevolence. Unseen threats lurk even, it seems, for cyclists. “Instructions for Cyclists Contending with Evil” was one of my favorite poems in the book, possibly because of its title. A few lines from that poem indicate the talent that Meitner has for balancing humor and chaos:
When riding in the street, wear a helmet, and stay as close
to the smoking ruins as possible. If you spot a woman
fleeing the rubble in labor, stop and help, but resist
naming the baby America.
Towards the end of the book, in the third section, “domestic spasm,” the voice and tone shift a bit; instead of instructions for vigilant girls, the speaker addresses a stranger before a wedding and a love interest, and the subject matter becomes more focused on weddings, marriage, and impending domesticity. Still, the poems are loaded with warning signs: radiation in the milk, awkward scenes in seedy motels. From “Red Tornado Warning:”
We are the Wrong Young Couple, that TV with a dial
& bad reception. Perpetual static…
…Siren in either. Siren closer, no basement in the cage
of your arms. A girl outside yelling one quick help…
A collection that enlightens as it entertains, that warns the reader to pay close attention to an ever-changing, ever-dangerous world, to embrace the strange while keeping the stranger at arm’s length.
--Jeannine Hall Gailey
Jeannine Hall Gailey is the author of Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books, 2006) and the forthcoming book She Returns to the Floating World (Kitsune Books, 2011). Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her poems have appeared in journals like The Iowa Review, Ninth Letter, and Prairie Schooner. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review and currently teaches at the MFA program at National University. Her web site is www.webbish6.com.