BILL SCALIA Reviews
The Package Insert of Sorrows by Angela Genusa
(Stato di Fuga, 2010)
The Package Insert of Sorrows is concerned, on cursory reading, with the Internet, medication, celebrity, and the state of the contemporary artist. Deeper readings reveal the book’s central concern: how the self can become emptied by these aspects of post-modernity, chiefly (and most affecting), the reduction of the person to the disaffected language of medication (medication, both as medicine and as product; the two aspects, as examined in the poems, are inseparable).
Some of the poems I like very much (“Package Insert of Sorrows”; “Tiger Toothpaste in the Sexes” [the best of the book]; “Don’t Weep, Aethusa”). In other of the poems, I located some truly remarkable lines: “seroquel equals call to arms”; “cause an overdose serenade”; “generic ortho tricyclen gymnast”; “Viagra is leisurely / the love of 18 ringtones”; “I viagra her. I think you viagra can?”; “the real pharmacy is his translation.” This last line I take to be the key image for the book as a whole.
The poems I like best are those in which the poet takes an expression (“package insert”) or drug name (“viagra”; “vistaril”) and reorients it through a kind of grammatical synesthesia, allowing it to serve as verb, adjective, pronoun, etc. As a way of expressing how medication defines a person (in terms of both identity and function), I think this is wonderfully effective (“I viagra her,” for example). These are the narrative poems, in which I can see a redefinition, and a vacating, of the subject through this kind of reorientation of meanings.
In a few other poems (“Testament”; “Keep That Oven Silent and Open”), I am reminded of the modernism of Gertrude Stein. Again, these poems suggest the emptying of meaning (in this case, through identity-by-medication, perhaps an extension of Stein’s complaint against modernism). The title “Keep That Oven Silent and Open” suggests Sylvia Plath; I’m not sure if this is Genusa’s intention, but I think it does work with the theme of the poems (the poet / person / woman modified or “replaced” by medication).
The other poems are more challenging. I recognize the nod to cut-up (in a form I might best describe as “Internet cut-paste”), and the way Genusa uses the technique works well in the larger context of the work (disassociation of ideas and meaning, at the level of basic language comprehension, as the self—in terms of personal identity and intellectual capacity—has been “defined” by medication). The “package insert of sorrows” becomes the text of the human. The most frightening implication of this to my mind is that the human can be reduced to a “text.” The most extreme example of this is in “How Do You Spell Viagra in Spanglish?”. I like the poem for the reasons I describe above, but I have a hard time following it over six pages.
In all, I like the book, and it works best as a whole more than as individual poems (which Genusa indicates by wrapping the leaves in an actual package insert; my copy came bound with OxyContin). Congratulations to Genusa for producing a cohesive work that is not reducible to extraction of its mere lines; in that way, of course, the text recapitulates the problems explored within.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (forthcoming in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). His book Conversing in Figures: Emerson, Poetry, Cinema will be completed in 2011. Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.