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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Review of Katy Mongeau's "Apostasy," by Evan Isoline







Black Sun Lit
Paperback | 91 pages
$15.00 U.S. | $20.00 International

Publication date: 3/16/2020



BOOK REVIEW BY EVAN ISOLINE

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Katy Mongeau’s debut Apostasy is a wet, sticky, prose-poetic dirge in two parts—or a danse macabre set at the liminal boundary of metamorphosis and self-discovery. This coming of age fever-vision is wrought of a cruel and delirious symbolist lexicon that trickles coolly and irreverently down and across each page—no—more like through each page. This is a teary, bloody, seedy rivulet, replete with nods to the lusty glossaries and violent theatrical mannerisms of Surrealist literature à la Georges Bataille or Unica Zürn. However, as tempting as it may be for me to position Mongeau’s febrile, extracorporeal Apostasy in the light (or shadow) of Surrealism’s androcentric prototypes of beauty and desire, I sense abounding personal nuance and mythical awareness in the autofictionally self-reflective births laid to waste along the pages of Apostasy.



Holding the book (produced by Brooklyn-based Black Sun Lit), I look at the title on the cover— Apostasy —a euphonious word, gorgeous though simultaneously terrorizing. It’s italicized and set with an elegant serif, but also bifurcated by a deliberate strikethough, and toward the bottom, the author’s name is similarly cancelled out, negated, and abandoned. As I move inside the derma of the book’s black cover, my mind summons the setting of a certain act of negation. I think of conspiracy, accusal and persecution. Although “apostasy” is generally understood in the early Christian context of a renunciation or abandonment of state-sanctioned religious or political beliefs, I follow the title back to its etymological root: the ancient Greek apostasis. This more generally denotes an act of revolt or defection. After reading the work it’s obvious that Mongeau’s text employs both concepts symbolically, and that the poetic implications of denying, changing, or killing God are manifold.



The first part of the book, titularly called “Apostasy”, begins with an act of seeing; quintessentially surrealist in its positioning of ‘the eye’ at the foreground of what and how we experience each page that follows. That this eye may be malfunctioning, diseased, or slit wide open is up to the reader to decide. This also marks the first pair of many totemic animals that appear throughout the book, as well as a foreshadowing of trauma spawned from a central self/other duality. Apostasy’s first page begins as follows:



The difference between the black birds

and the black flies was only the distance

from my lazy eye.



For all I knew, the world out there was rotten.



Ungrateful, he reaches in and pries.



This act of seeing becomes integral in establishing a cognition of self-reference and subjecthood relative to the landscape Mongeau’s autofictive character inhabits, and to an Other, henceforth utilizing temporal-spatial dualities of inside/outside, stillness/motion, polarization/integration, body/void etc. Perhaps these dualities are best understood next to or beneath the primary contrast set within Apostasy, which is a feeling of simultaneity between life and death. In the spirit of Bataille, it’s possible that only poetry can bridge this unbridgeable gap between living and dead planes. As such, Mongeau’s words themselves become discreet impossible bodies oscillating alchemically between solid and liquid states, transubstantiating from vegetal to mineral, locked in a wonderful paradoxical relation of metaphor, parallelism, fusion, mutuality, interdependence, and connectivity.



Mongeau’s minimally cruel wordcraft transports me to an aesthetically medieval or gothic place. While at once distinctly pastoral/feudal, the mood is expansive and stratified. Though its root-feeling may be Rosiacrucian-Roman, symbols and narrative cues juxtapose omens of fever, fire, scourge, and witchcraft with those of fecundity, romance, whimsy and fairytale. Our character seems to have an appetite for her own undoing (potentially a metaphorical form of escape from oneself), describing complex Thanatic instincts towards war, evil, destruction, and self-abandonment. It strikes me that this may also be the poet’s kink for exposure in textual wildernesses of the liminal and in-between, auto-exiled to the danger and ambiguity of a hallucinatory zone, or a deep inner/outer space. Although, I remind myself that only by transgressing certain hierarchical thresholds (in the creeping paranoia of condemnation) does this expression of violence against the self becomes a poetic act— ameliorative, therapeutical, and cathartic. This is what makes Mongeau’s poetry apostatic, and ultimately erotic.



Part one of Apostasy reads as a savage song of erasure written to the memory an ex-lover, or to the violence and possession of intimacy itself. Mongeau writes:



I understand in the lover’s act

of swallowing. I come close in the erotic

light. In a dream, I lay you out in a field

where the flowers are reeking of the come

that makes them and the come they make

and I let the sun burn you alive. Finally, I see

the fire that is your flesh.



The landscape she describes seems to function as a mystical stage, or a wheat field that flashes epileptically in one’s dying moments. We are inside the body when we are outside. But no matter how ripe this in-scape of death, there is always a sense of ecstasy exacerbating the violence. The sensuality of Mongeau’s figurative language has the effect of evoking a kind of synesthetic visuality. She exults with solemn imagery and a hypnotically spaced rhythm, always aware of the pale, vitreous smog obfuscating the inner/outer/psychic spaces traversed through the poems. In a wraithlike dialect, she coughs up a beautiful long aria of dead birds in drugged, jilted lulls, incanting from the same dislocated moment of heartbreak and violation.



In the world of the text, the landscape doubles as subject, like a body with God at the center, or a body with God carved out. A green grave. Amorous, sadistic, expurgatory, and self-indulgent. Yes—I sense the inducement of the place, and similarly, the subject’s state of mind. In a way it’s unrealistic; surreal in the sense of being outside or beyond reality. There is mythos and romance in this war and rage of rebirth, this ungauzing and razing of archaic wounds. It’s a jungle of becomeness—this wrecked carcass of love putrescing out of memory, soft and sour, dark maggots filling in the pours of each new fruit.



However, there is one thing that is consistent, paradoxical, and profound about this beautiful catastrophe, this denunciation of masters by a doubly inverted hero fixing on fertilizer and exhaust. The poetry is activated by the orbiting presence of the poet herself, written in the service of some ulterior craving, some primal or symbolic dread, heaven-bent on disgrace and rejection. There is something about classical tragedy that lingers and resonates through the mnemonic function of the text. This is an ancient story told out of a personal necessity of abandonment and revolt, and of the procreativity of death.



Throughout part one, Mongeau enters a kind of dissociative fugue state creating a would-be double or apparition, referring to her as the girl. She triangularly tethers this past or outside self to a third entity, the ‘You’—a dark, masculine, prince-like figure from whom the subject cannot seem to escape. Mongeau screams her ecstatic disaffiliation to the ‘You’ in a field that, like a body, perennially blossoms and festers. However, her scream is not a scream. It’s a scream inside a dream—a scream underwater. Mongeau is screaming through the diaphanous haze of history.



The book’s namesake appears in the line, “When you murdered me, I called it apostasy.” This is the voice of the Edenic Virgin, interposed with the Whore of Babylon, the serene Mother-Goddess molting madly into Monster, the countenance of the Dark Mother, the Terrible Mother, Kali Ma by way of Saint Jeanne at the stake. Throughout part one, I am reminded of starkly spotlit renaissance and baroque heroines enacting revenge on hierarchical, male oppressors with impunity and relative ease. In this context, to question, deny, or make up one’s mind is to exercise one’s will, or to change one’s mind—and to predominately male hierarchal castes, change is the enemy. Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Beheading Holofernes, and Elisabetta Sirani’s Timoclea Killing her Rapist are two such works that come to mind, not to mention a disquieting procession of maenads, sirens, harpies, and witches.



Mongeau writes, “I have been woman most wretched.” Here I can see the mouths of the Medusa and the merciless Sphynx contorted in grotesque snarls, and later lines such as “In the night/ I dreamt of the archer with seven fingers” invite reference to Christian martyrs, avenging angels and ancient deities, particularly

Artemis—the archer, Greek goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, the

Moon, and chastity. Layered against these mythological undertones, Mongeau presents contrasting references to stereotypical gender roles and sexism promulgated within classical western folklore and fairytales.



“We were tying each other to the horse/ night after night/ in hopes it might catch fire in our sleep”, Mongeau writes, offering the symbol of an immolated horse as a vessel of agency and freedom for the archetypal lovers. This captures a critical desperation and violence inherent in such youthful flights towards intimacy and unification, by way of a normative social assimilation. The vessel is burning but is not alone in its cremation—it burns within the totality of the field, within which everything is immolated—the fantasy and the reality. Mongeau’s conflagration of self is a paradoxical act of both despair and defiance, a symbolic act of resignation and self-sacrifice to inevitable forces of entropy—death as the universal harbinger of transformation and change.



The second portion of the book, entitled, “Hostia”, redirects the lens from fiery apotheosis to a meaty timelapse of the becoming-body; a disturbing image of female youth in objectification. The title at once suggests the communion wafer, the symbolic consumption of the body of Christ, and perhaps the body as host for some sort of parasitic entity. This montage of growth is encyclopedic in its presentment of emotional and bodily pain. Confessional allusions to rites of fertility including pubescence and menstruation are effectively annexed with funeral rites and allusions to assault and violation, as stings, pinches, cuts, bites, gags, and burns are inflicted on the subject’s body. Like a delicacy, or a sacrifice, the body is portrayed like an animal being prepared for ceremonial consumption.



There are many points throughout the text that I am reminded of the written work of German surrealist writer Unica Zürn. There is theatricality in the way that both writers blur boundaries between author, narrator, and character, presenting the reader with the critical conflict of having to discern the artist’s work from the artist’s life. Aside from Zürn’s writing, I find other similarities in the nefarious collaborations spawned from her relationship with artist Hans Bellmer. Together Zürn and Bellmer explored the depths of extreme sadomasochistic eroticism in the form of photographs and drawings, and relationships between power dynamics and sexuality would find their way into the heart of mainstream philosophy throughout the rest of the 20th century. It is generally understood that Zürn was a willing, submissive model for Bellmer’s projects involving bondage throughout the 1950’s. What he called “altered landscapes” of the human body were drawings and photographs of Zürn tightly bound with rope. Although I find parallels in the psychosomatic works of Mongeau and Zürn, I also find departures.



As a defiant rehearsal of the passage into terminal objecthood, or corpsehood,

Mongeau’s cold, precise use of language incises and scatters little cutlets of her flesh as the reader follows her inside herself, as she descends, desperately yet bravely elegant, revealing fertility as carrying the potential of attracting cruel and perverse forms of desire. Through poetic symbolism and inference, Mongeau almost anthropologically traces secular rites of passage, as well as modern stigma and taboo involving bodily female youth, back to a historic religious source, at the center of which can only be a masculine fetishism that forges its object of desire in the image of something young, taut, furless, passive and pure. In a different light, this cruel desire could be seen as a primal intimidation or fear involving fecundity, nature, motherhood and the feminine, inculcating a political form of sexual warfare, or a necrophilia which would immobilize and reduce the female to a notion of its body—something ripe for sacrifice and consumption. This is hauntingly apparent in lines like: “My meat has been kept bound and tendered like lamb like veal like whatever else is also good to eat” or “I like me tender and chewy. Chewable. I like me sprawled out and limp. For butchery or stuffing.”



To help me ground my reading of Mongeau’s Apostasy, I’ve juxtaposed it against social and historical archetypes in a way that would help me relate the work verbally. Without an attempt at considerable exegesis of the text my reading of the book may have been very different. But some books make you want to write about them. This is one of them. However, what’s ultimately vain in attempting to describe this work analytically, using history as an objective compass in summarizing its logic, is that after all it is poetry. At its heart is action, intoxication, mystery and revolt. It’s lunar and Dionysian. Once inside the mind of the reader, Mongeau’s poetry is psychotropic. Apostasy operates as an expression of the inexpressibility of pain and subjugation—a holy excess at the nucleus of the infinite disintegration of the self. In this way, the work is simultaneously personal and historical, which I believe remains the book’s most critical and impressive function.





Evan Isoline is an Oregon-based writer of the bodily, figurative, and ekphrastic. You can find his work online in chapbook form, and his debut book is forthcoming from 11:11 Press.

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