Freak Show by Valerie Bandura
Black Lawrence Press, 2013; 72 pp
Reviewed by Daniel Heffner


Valerie Bandura’s Freak Show is a remarkably cohesive book, considering that the poems travel from Russia to the United States, from childhood to adulthood, and from loneliness to schizophrenia. The poems that could feel the most out of place are the poems about conjoined twins, “What a Pair” and “Two-Headed Child.” Though they mark departures from Bandura’s established speaker, they help create the intense feeling of attachment, struggle, and separation between the speaker and her sister with schizophrenia.

Bandura crafts an account of alienation and prejudice that is at once painful and understanding. She gives us the boy who, having labeled her a “Commie,”

reclined into his chair, keeping both eyes on my face
to see if the idea of me had somehow clarified for him

once he figured out how to define what I am.

She gives us the people who, on hearing a friend or family member is leaving Russia, turn vicious:

And at home, Leave him, his wife’s mother
told his wife at the door, Take the children and run.

—All Jews. The more Jewish, the louder, meaner
so it was clear, so everyone knew that you knew

who was a traitor and who wasn’t. They thought,
You’re leaving—what will they do to us?

What she achieves in these poems and others like them is an empathy that never cheapens the hurt and anger of the alienated: no easy feat. This empathy, both for the alienated and the alienators, resonates through her other poems; for me, notably “Jews for Jesus,” a poem that grapples with an unsuccessful electroshock treatment.

The heartbeat of this book is alienation, and against that backdrop, some of her poems truly shine. Two poems in particular, “Mother Tongue” and “The Mistake,” demonstrate Bandura’s talent for pivoting in the last lines of a poem, leaving readers in limbo between beauty and pain. In “Mother Tongue,” a self-conscious note turns readers uneasily away from the confusion and pain of the sister to the speaker’s struggle to know what to do with it. “The Mistake” walks readers through the discovery of a newborn infant’s facial deformity, and deftly leaves readers with the exhausted joy of the mother, who has not yet seen her child.

It says something about the book’s range that in an attempt to describe the experience of reading Bandura’s first book, I have had to rely on the interactions between poems. The tensions that Bandura draws out energize each other like Gene Krupa energizes Benny Goodman in “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Freak Show is a book to live with and return to.