It must have been fate that lemons were floating in my ice water while I read Katie Jean Shinkle’s chapbook Baby-Doll Under Ice on a late summer night. Fate or a pregnancy craving, maybe. Either way the lemon water primed me for the citrus fruit that figures prominently in the hand-bound collection of poems (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014) portraying the submerging of alter-egos Charlotte and Baby-Doll.
Charlotte decided long ago her organs were to be brandished as weapons.
Charlotte decided on citrus, her heart a lemon, her liver a grapefruit.
The opening prose poem is spare and haunting. Who is Charlotte and why does she make her organs into citrus-fruit weapons? Throughout the chapbook, these Charlotte prose poems are juxtaposed with lineated poems that speak to a persona called Baby-Doll. Oh, and both women are under water. (“Charlotte, under the frozen water is a wooden crate. Inside the wooden crate, your heart.”)
There is an ever-present sense of sinking throughout the poems that portray these two characters.
In a lineated poem that addresses Baby-Doll, the mystery speaker pronounces,
We swallow. First woman,
first feet, hear circles, submerge.
Feet first, into open ice,
the circles we create.
She says please stay, stay
a little longer, wrap
around tentacle, pull.
The first stanza above makes me think of the way patriarchal society swallows women as well as the way some women swallow themselves through perpetually and selflessly giving and caring for others. I read the character the second stanza refers to as being at her wit’s end—lonely—and hungry for company.
And perhaps the speaker and this Baby-Doll figure are keeping one another company while they are both submerged, trapped under water. Is this descent peaceful or traumatic? An escape? This ambiguity is heightened by the relationship between the interlocked characters—and perhaps speakers.
We see this plurality and ambiguity is echoed on the cover where Connie Mae Oliver’s design features a woman fractured and washed in blue and fuchsia. This fractured woman, drenched in blue, holds a hand mirror. Is the self she sees an alter-ego, a woman that outsiders see? Does her appearance match what onlookers perceive as feminine, as womanly? Does she perhaps wear a cerulean blue ribbon in her hair like the one that binds the book?
Maybe this woman—or these women—find peace in their sinking. There is a sense of exhaustion, of giving all one has left to give: “Charlotte’s lemonheart in December has no juice to give./ Charlotte has left the crate at the shore./ Charlotte is alone, is alone and contemplating, alone high and contemplating.”
These are characters who have given up, who have surrendered to the December depths where lemonhearts rot in crates. But this surrender is an act of defiance. And the characters find comfort in their solidarity.
In “Baby-Doll’s Cry for Help,” one character beckons the other to
…come sit next to me.
No, closer. No, please, closer still
until you are on my lap on my knees
no closer still, on my thighs, you are
on my chest on my face o Baby-Doll
you are on my hips we are no please
come closer until you are invisible….
Both women (or were they always one woman?) are below the surface, but there is a haunting comfort to their company. Their shared sinking melds them together, makes them the same person (“until you are on my lap on my knees”). And isn’t this moment a fulfillment of the title of Connie Mae Oliver’s cover image: “dieu reunie ceux qui s’aiment” (God reunites those who love one another), the last line of a hymn to love? Based on the accompanying cover art, it seems that Charlotte/Baby-Doll is reuniting with herself and finally practicing self-care.
Baby-Doll (could it be her?) expresses her love for Charlotte (which is actually her love for herself?) in one of the final poems:
Charlotte, this lemonheart is only yours.
Charlotte, yours for keeps.
Charlotte, there are so many people who beg you for love.
The greatest pleasure of reading Katie Jean Shinkle’s chapbook while drinking a glass mug of lemon water is actually the unknowing the reader experiences. Crates of rotting lemons underwater and cirtrus-fruit-shaped hearts suggest connections between Charlotte and Baby-Doll, between submergence and love, but these questions, these hints, are more rewarding because they are in the end unknowable.
This pleasure is magnified by the resounding gong of the materiality of the handbound book. The way the cover art echoes and questions the narratives suggested by the poems. The way the wash of icy blue submerging the woman on the cover and the knotted cerulean hair ribbon binding the book echo the cries of December, December, December and sink-sink-sinking in the book.
* * * *
Emilie Lindemann is the author of four chapbooks, most recently Small Adult Trees/Small Adulteries from Dancing Girl Press. She is obsessed with handbound books and chocolate almond scones. Her current project is a collaboration, Lost & Found, with visual artist Karen Laudon.